“It’s just so cute to me that in Walter’s world, there is somebody who is a beast in perfume,” Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado documentary co-director Cristina Costantini told Refinery29 on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8. It was also the day Costantini’s new doc — about oft-caped Puerto Rican astrology icon Walter Mercado, who died in November 2019 at age 87 — premiered on Netflix. “That that is something you could even be is funny to me,” Costantini continued with a warm smile in her voice.
Costantini, who is a Midwestern Latina, is referring to one of the very best parts of Mucho Amor: the moment the doc’s fabulous subject, international spiritual guru Mercado, begins planning the guest list for his upcoming event in Miami. Mercado, resplendent in multiple jewels, a lavender vest/shirt combo, and his signature bouffant, announces the gathering will be “un escándalo” if he invites every person who loves him in Magic City. There’s Julio Iglesias (father to international sex symbol Enrique), the Estefan family, and… La Bestia. La Bestia — aka The Beast — absolutely needs to be there, Mercado explains to the confusion of his family.
“[He is] the most famous perfume dealer in Miami,” Mercado says, as if this is the most obvious fact in the world. Mercado’s head turns slightly as he speaks, a GIF waiting to happen. Costantini, 31, confirmed she “fought” for this little gem of an exchange to remain in her doc, which she co-directed with fellow Latinx documentarian Kareem Tabsch.
The Bestia scene is a microcosm of what makes Mucho Mucho Amor — and its leading man — so special, particularly to millennials. It celebrates the exuberant queer glamour of Mercado, his powerful connection to Latinidad, his DNA-level savvy for meme-ability, and his relentless love for other people (the way he says “my good friends” will break your heart). The power of astrology — Mercado’s claim to fame and beloved by Gen Y — also hovers above the conversation. It’s a reminder that although pop culture is constantly trying to put Latinx culture into a punishingly conservative box at best, and a violent, drug-dealing lens at worst, our people are so much bigger and more beautiful than that.
“Walter always said it, but it’s true: He was 100 years ahead of his time,” Costantini said over the phone, adding that she's sporting a Mercado-inspired blazer while her pug Harriet snorts next to her. “He figured out a way through his intelligence and messaging and performative qualities to make a super machismo, homophobic culture that’s super Catholic fall in love with him.”
As we see in Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado’s star began to rise in the 1970s with a 15-minute horoscope spot on Telemundo that quickly snowballed into a full hour. From there, decades of ultra positive television spots, radio shows, talk show appearances, and even a psychic hotline followed. Hundreds of millions of adoring fans around the globe cropped up in response, including Costantini. The filmmaker grew up in Milwaukee watching Mercado on Univision with her grandma — making Mercado one of her few solid cultural “connections” to her Latinx identity in Wisconsin. “For me and for a lot of young Latinos, he was our first encounter with so many ideas that are so important. On top of that, he really filled us with love.” Costantini, whose father is from Argentina, explained. “I had always been fascinated by him: by how he looked, by his jewelry, his capes. I couldn’t tell if he was a man or a woman. He seemed to know the future. For a kid he was endlessly fascinating.”
But, Mercado was also a huge draw for Costantini’s grandmother and other older Latinx women like her. This may surprise some people who assume conservative abuelas would be turned off by Mercado, someone who refused to define his sexuality but did identify as non-binary prior to his November 2019 death (Mercado preferred masculine pronouns). He also went against the grain by openly mixing Catholicism with various other religions and the mysticism of astrology and tarot. Costantini, however, isn’t so shocked by the multi-generational outpouring of love for Mercado.
“Somebody said it yesterday, that he has his own form of abuelita couture. I love that phrase,” she said, nodding towards Mercado’s fluffy cropped hair, amazing caftans, endless baubles, and well-maintained face. Grandmas couldn't help but see themselves reflected back in Mercado. “We are a culture that very much likes looking well-groomed and taken care of,” Costantini continued. “I think that is part of his secret to success. Abuelitas love him because many of them deny that he was queer or gay. When they looked at him, they saw a proper, put-together man”.
After all, one of the central pillars of Latinx culture is known for its grandeur and asexuality. “Our religious figures, our popes, our priests — they wear very fabulous robes and we celebrate them,” Costantini pointed out about the Catholic church. “Walter used that to his advantage.”
Still, Costantini, co-director Tabsch and producer Alex Fumero didn’t shy away from giving “gay icon” Walter a chance to talk about his sexuality after 50 years of “snotty,” as Costantini said, failed public inquiries into the subject. “Because Walter has been asked hundreds of different ways [about his sexuality], he has a million different very cute responses to that question,” Costantini explained. “In the film you see how he navigates the interviews masterfully and how he makes us all laugh so that he doesn’t have to talk about things in a way that he doesn’t want to talk about them. It was our duty to give him that space.”
The idea of giving Mercado “space” to fully be himself is the ultimate lynchpin of Mucho Mucho Amor. “Walter, like our culture, is much more complex than people would like him to be,” Costantini explained. “For me, it was important to celebrate the outsiders in our culture and the complexity of our culture. We’re so much more than just narcos and border issues.”
That is why, as Costantini considered what lesson she hoped viewers would take away from her film, the conversation came down to amor. The same amor Mercado instilled in her as a child in Milwaukee with her abuela. “If we all take a minute and think about how we can all enact love in our own lives, who we can love more, how we can learn and how we can treat people with empathy, we would all live in a better place,” Costantini said. “I try to practice love in a new and radical way. And it’s hard. We need Walter and we need his message.”