Walter Mercado is the timeless icon for generations
Walter Mercado is the timeless icon for generations. Credit: Courtesy Netflix; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Pop Culture
7 min

Fanning the flames of flamboyant fabulist Walter Mercado

Kareem Tabsch, producer of ‘Mucho Mucho Amor,’ on how they convinced the famous Puerto Rican astrologer to return to the screen

If you’re a subscriber you’ve likely scrolled past this image on Netflix lately: A blonde figure with a dewy complexion, wrapped in a white satin cape with gold, sequined flames sewn into its edges. He holds his face gently and smiles at you with a cheeky look that’s also kind, almost knowing. For nearly 40 years, Latinx households in Central, South and North America looked to this face most afternoons for astrological readings and advice on everything from romance to finances. His name was Walter Mercado, and the capes—which made an appearance on every segment—weren’t just a bonus, they were essential to who he was. When he died late last year at the age of 87, he was working on that very Netflix documentary, Mucho Mucho Amor, about his extraordinary life.

Whether you are new to the legend that is Mercado or grew up with his daily astrological readings playing on the kitchen television, you will come away from watching Mucho Mucho Amor with a better understanding of just how deeply ingrained his work became in contemporary Latinx culture, and the impact he had on multiple generations of young, queer Latinx people who identified with his refusal to do anything other than be himself. Fans will also get some serious tea on the legal dramas that led to his abrupt disappearance from public life over a decade ago.

I spoke with Kareem Tabsch, the Miami-based producer who co-directed Mucho Mucho Amor with filmmaker Cristina Constantini, about making the documentary and convincing Mercado to take part. The first thing señor wanted to know? Their signs of course; Tabsch and Constantini, a Libra duo, and producer Alex Fumero a Sagittarius. “Apparently that was the right answer,” Tabsch says. “He said he’d do it. He didn’t explain, and we didn’t ask.”

My favourite lead-up to finally getting to watch this documentary was seeing Alexis Matteo play Mercado as a Snatch Game contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race just a week before. It was spot-on.

The suit Alexis wore on the show was exactly the same suit that Walter owned! I don’t know if she knew this going into it, but I saw it in his closet. Walter would buy a lot of things from Macy’s, and they have a brand at Macy’s called INK. I also like this brand because it’s over-the-top and fun. So when Alexis was wearing it, I instantly recognized it as something he owned. I dug up a picture on the internet of him wearing it and I sent it to her via email. I think it was a classic moment of Walter aligning the stars to welcome Mucho Mucho Amor’s release.

How would you describe Mercado to people who didn’t grow up watching his shows?

We describe Walter as being one part Mr. Rogers and one part Oprah—but dressed as Liberace, with a dose of Big Bird for good measure. He was this charismatic, over-the-top figure who came into our living rooms every day looking like nothing we’d ever seen before. He shared these astrological horoscopes with us, but in reality, he used all of that as a way of inspiring and sharing a message of love, peace and inclusion. He was this staple of Latinx households and a ubiquitous part of the culture. On any given day, you’d pick up a paper and his columns would be in there. There was morning drive time—he had a morning radio show in the U.S. and Latin America. He was on so many daytime talk shows, and chat shows in the evening—and then he’d be parodied by sketch shows in the evening. So he was just everywhere for such a long time. You couldn’t turn a corner in Latino media without seeing Walter Mercado.

I don’t think there’s a comparable person working in astrology today in another language.

We thought a lot about this, and I don’t think there was ever an astrological figure who was so popular in English media. And even just someone who was so… out there, on that level. On a daily basis. Obviously, the comparisons to Liberace have happened, but even for him, the ramp-up to his showmanship with the clothing and the jewels happened relatively late in his career. For Walter, it was from day one. He presented that way from the beginning and never stopped.

He seemed to navigate his celebrity so seamlessly despite being a queer-presenting astrologer in a culture that hadn’t historically embraced either of those things. How?

It’s complicated. One, I think, was that he was so brazen. He decided to live as his authentic self, but I also think he knew that the outfits, the hair, the makeup, all of that was eye-catching. It was his truth, but it was eye-catching. He was unlike anyone on television. We’d call him non-binary or genderqueer using the language we have now. But I think the fact that he was talking about things usually not talked about on primetime television—astrology, religion, santeria, the occult—I think it gave him a cover, in a sense. He was otherworldly. He seemed alien; he really seemed like someone who came from another planet. And, of course, someone who didn’t come from earth wouldn’t look like the rest of us—and, of course, that would make sense for Walter.

But at the same time, he was kind of brilliant in his subversiveness. He didn’t talk about his sexuality in plain terms, he didn’t like labels and never said “I’m gay.” And in doing so, I think he was able to exist in a space where he was clearly different or other. He didn’t talk about it so that you were confronted in that way, but he confronted you visually and talked about it in a roundabout way. He always came on TV and showed us who he was.

There are moments in the doc where you ask him about this, in plain terms, and he still has this very Walter-like way of answering. How did you think about approaching this?

First, we just kept asking in different contexts. We hoped that he’d be able to talk about this more candidly, and we talked to his family and they gave us their blessing to approach him and try to talk to him about this. They also told us that Walter is very guarded about his private life and he’s never even talked about it with them, so we should try.

And I would say about halfway through production I was getting frustrated that the answers we were getting were very guarded and rehearsed. They were same answer he’d been using about everything; he’d been in front of a camera for 50 years, so he had rehearsed answers. So I had a conversation with him. I had several, but there was this one—we’d ensured all the cameras were turned off and audio equipment was out of the room—it was just him and I, and I told him about what he meant for me as a young queer person and how, honestly, it was an integral reason why I wanted to make the doc. I was a young queer boy growing up in the inner city of Miami, watching Walter Mercado with my family every afternoon. And I remember seeing him on TV and thinking, “Wow, who is that?” I knew that he looked the way I felt, and I sensed that otherness. I may not have known I was queer at the time, but I sensed that sense of otherness.

And I told him that. And I told him how important he was, and how revolutionary it was and how he inspired generations of queer people. And I told him, “I would really love for you to talk about this in a more direct way.” And he shook his head and said, “I don’t talk about my private life. I don’t like labels. I don’t feel like there’s something I need to say.”

At the end of the day, we didn’t get a declaration from Walter; what we got was him being himself, as he always has been. He grew up in rural Puerto Rico in the 1940s. You didn’t talk about sexuality. You didn’t talk about your private life. My grandmother is 94 and I never ask her about her romantic dalliances. So I think that was ingrained in him.

I don’t think we can diminish his huge contribution to society by being who he was. There was never a declarative statement, but it still meant so much.

One of the things about filming a documentary about someone at a certain stage in their life and career is that ageing becomes a theme. It’s one of the most touching parts of the film.

Documentary is so different from narrative film. When you work in narrative you go into it knowing what’s going to happen. And with docs, you go in with one idea and then life happens. When we first met Walter he was the picture of health, walking his dogs and hanging out in hammocks. But during filming, the ravages of age and time really started to hit him, and it happened very quickly. We didn’t know at the time that it was the kind of film we were making until Walter started seeing this decline in his health. He fought it the way anyone would; he was very proud and very self-conscious and image-conscious and he struggled with that. The limitations of his body. And sometimes he fought us: There’s a moment in the film where he instructs us to only shoot him from the shoulders up so we don’t see him using a walker.

But I think he was the epitome of ageing with dignity. I was with him five weeks before he passed, and he was pretty much bed-bound at that point. But he was still dazzling, and still such a star. But I think it’s important to remind ourselves that even our icons are only human at the end of the day, and this was part of that story.

What do you hope people take away from watching this doc?

One interesting thing about Walter that you see in the doc is he had no space in his life for negativity. He just didn’t make space for it. He was the most optimistic person I’ve ever met; some of the most difficult parts of making the film were getting him to talk about the hard times. He just didn’t dwell on the negative, whether it was his awful legal entanglements or his health. He was only ever interested in the present. In the film, he says, “Heaven is today and heaven is now, and that’s the only heaven I want.” That still stays with me today.