Walter Mercado: the Brightest Star

‘Mucho Mucho Amor’ highlights the fabulous life and not-so-tragic death of the Latin world’s most famous astrologer

How to explain Walter Mercado to someone who didn’t grow up with a TV tuned to Spanish-language programming? For decades, Mercado’s heavily-made-up, Liberace-by-way-of-Jennifer Coolidge face brightened televisions with mystical astrology readings. He wore intricately-designed capes and moved his arms in sweeping gestures informed with the grace of the dashing dancer and stage actor he was in college. The Zodiac never had such a mesmerizing spokesperson.

If you didn’t grow up seeing this strange person on your television, it’s hard to convey how omnipresent Walter Mercado felt and how strange it felt to hear that he died late last year. Mercado seemed immortal, as if he had already died, existing only as a spirit beamed via satellite, transmitted through coaxial cable.

The new Netflix documentary that borrows for its title Mercado’s signature signoff, Mucho Mucho Amor, tries very hard to figure out what about the flamboyant astrologer made him such a fixture, at one point reaching about 130 million fans across the world, primarily in Latin America. Filmed not very long before Mercado’s death, the documentary enters his home, a shrine to Mercado’s fame, and reveals what happened to the astrologer after the apex of his fame.

Unfortunately, that journey begins with a misleading introduction suggesting there was some great mystery as to Mercado’s whereabouts, with echoes of the popular podcast Missing Richard Simmons.

Mercado didn’t gain a bunch of weight or seclude himself from the public or fall under the spell of a controlling assistant; he simply got older, failed to bounce back from some very costly business deals, and spent his last years at home with family and a loyal assistant, soaking in whatever honors and scraps of public attention came his way. Poignant, but not particularly mysterious.

 

What the film does get right is in at least raising the question of how a sexually ambiguous, surgically augmented mystic could find such acceptance from the public, particularly across decades of rampant homophobia and misogyny in Latinx culture. The filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareen Tabsch, and Mercado himself in his own words, suggest that it was Mercado’s unlimited capacity for love and positivity that grew his fame. As an astrologer, Mercado never suggested gloom or doom, disaster and heartbreak, only the rewards of being a good, confident person willing to embrace the world’s inherent beauty.

 

The first half of the film, from Mercado’s early work as a child prophet, where his mother accepted his androgyny (“To be different is a gift,” he says he was told) to his early acting work in telenovelas, there’s not much rigor investigating what’s real and what’s myth-building. Mercado’s own words and archival photos and video tell that story.

It is only when Mercado has become a success on television that some cracks begin to appear along the primped, blushed surface. Mercado had a shady business manager named Bill Bakula who at one point owned Mercado’s name and likeness and kept the astrologer from using either. Surprisingly, Bakula appears in the film, defending his one-sided contract and saying he has no regrets.

Walter Mercado was also part of the even-shadier Psychic Friends Network, at one time employing thousands of so-called seers who answered 1-900 phone lines in the 1990s, charging callers upwards of $33 a minute. It’s hard to believe Mercado truly thought they were all born with psychic gifts, as he claims. The doc doesn’t linger very long on the question of whether Mercado’s actions trafficked on the adoration he built and preyed on the poor and gullible.

There’s also a long scene with one of Puerto Rico’s other incredibly famous people, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, meeting Mercado for the first time. Surely it’s a nod to Miranda’s many fans and a way to attract viewers, but the encounter itself comes across sweaty and cringey, redeemed only by Miranda’s tearful enthusiasm. Miranda is like any other Latin American person who grew up watching Mercado; he is awed to be in the same room with this man. But the moment, captured on Instagram as well, speaks to how we treat celebrities today for a social-media audience, in fawning, broad strokes. The two stars don’t compare notes on the price of their fame or their creative processes, it’s the kind of drive-by encounter people pay $300 to get at a post-concert meet and greet.

In the documentary, within his own San Juan, Puerto Rico home, Walter Mercado seems fussy and restless, but also sweet and deeply naïve. His close relatives portray him as too trusting, too caught up in his all-consuming work to be aware of predators and bad business. Despite the perception, too, and some coy questioning from the filmmakers, Mercado never admits that he is gay or even non-binary, suggesting he has sex and is in love with all people and things, not any one person. Mercado, to his last days, was about leaving some mystery behind the stage curtain.

That makes him quite unique in the world of entertainment, the rare legend unwilling to reveal everything about himself to be heard or to be worthy of documenting. “Mucho Mucho Amor” is not particularly revealing or probing, but at its center is a fabulously watchable figure, one very easy to love.

Walter Mercado
Walter Mercado, star of his own life and the new Netflix documentary ‘Mucho Mucho Amor’.

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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