Love in the stars: 'Mucho Mucho Amor' filmmakers on gender trailblazing astrologer Walter Mercado

An image from "Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado" on Netflix.
An image from "Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado" on Netflix. (Netflix)

“Love is the reason for everything.”

That was the tenet that steered Puerto Rican astrologer and Latinx icon Walter Mercado for over 40 years as he was beamed into households eager for horoscopes, and even more for hope. He preached positivity with unwavering conviction while cloaked in outlandish capes and dazzling jewelry, a vision of opulence at once otherworldly, genderless, yet perpetually familiar. Magnetic to a fault, he commanded attention.

A fixture in the lives of 120 million Latinos in the U.S. and Latin Americans across the continent, Mercado, whose mortal body departed this metaphysical plane in November 2019, had been absent from the small screen for more than a decade, but never from the memories of those for whom his image symbolizes a comforting childhood souvenir.

Two years prior to his passing, a trio of Latinx storytellers — co-directors Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, and producer Alex Fumero — embarked on an astral voyage to make a movie about Mercado’s life, legacy and his sudden banishment from the airwaves.

With nearly empty pockets (at first) as they went into production, but with the stars aligned in their favor, they achieved alchemy in the documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” — a loving title taken from the astrologer's catchphrase sign-off after every appearance. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and debuted Wednesday on Netflix.

“We were amazed that a documentary had not been made about Walter. We all understood just how much he means to all of our friends who are Latinos,” says Costantini, who is Argentine American. She grew up in Milwaukee without many Latinos around other than those on the Spanish-language network Univision, where Mercado’s segment was featured on the on the newscast "Primer Impacto" for many years.

Like many Latinx millennials and xennials, Costantini associates Mercado’s presence with her grandmother. She remembers laying on her lap quietly as she waited for the astrologer to call out her sign.

“I can't separate the nostalgia that I have for my childhood and Walter’s persona," she says. "They’re synonymous for me, like how other Americans see Mr. Rogers, maybe even Oprah or Big Bird. For me it’s always been Walter.”

Flamboyant and unafraid to overtly tap into his femininity, Mercado transcended binary notions of sexual identity without ever formally coming out or explicitly discussing his orientation. Latina matriarchs rationalized his demeanor and attire based on the mystical context in which he performed. Seen as a regal, near holy figure, anything was permissible. He understood his audience, what he could or could not say, and prospered to legendary status within a traditional community where homophobia still runs rampant.

Costantini’s own grandmother only recently came to terms with the possibility that Mercado might have not been heterosexual — a major step for those raised in a generation for which any concepts outside the norm were taboo.

“He made a conscious decision to create a larger-than-life character in a literal way that shielded him from the types of scrutiny that other people who are different in that way face. If you are a wizard you can be anything," Fumero explains. "Your magic gives you a veil.”

The Walter test

Mercado tapped into Latinos’ unique relationship with spirituality, one often ruled by Catholic practices but which tacitly admits esotericism as well. His brand of astrology, which fused Santería, Eastern religions and Christianity, guided his every step, business-related and otherwise, even the decision to participate in “Mucho Mucho Amor.”

“As soon as we got on the phone to pitch him the project he said, ‘This is very interesting, but I have one question: What are your astrological signs?’ We were floored that this would come into play,” says Costantini.

In that initial interaction, after tracking down his family in order to reach him, the team understood that Mercado, true to his nature, would be far from an easy subject to decode. As Costantini points out, Spanish-language press tends to behave in a rather pushy and sensationalist manner, and Mercado had half a century of media training in that harsh environment. He was prepared for anything thrown at him. “Any question we asked, he would have a flirtatious answer that would crack us up and make us forget the line of questioning we were going through,” she recalls.

Before foraying into documentary filmmaking, Costantini made a living as an investigative journalist. But not even that training prepared her for the difficulty of interviewing Mercado.

“I’ve interviewed drug lords, corrupt CEOs and lawyers who were at the top of their game, and Walter is still the most media-trained person of them all,” she says. “He has taken such care to curate his public persona of Walter, that getting behind that was really one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my career.”

Guarded in his infectious optimism, Mercado was willing to dish about the good times. But getting serious and honest about the unglamorous parts of his day to day, or his legal battle with former manager Guillermo Bakula over the right to the use of his own name, required the directors to ask the same questions multiple times and with different approaches to arrive at an approximation of the truth from his standpoint.

In the debilitating court dispute to regain control of his brand, Mercado was forced to renounce to the glitz of the cameras — his lifeline — in 2006. Futile attempts to return were made. Which makes the documentary's new account of his storied existence a long-overdue final performance.

Over the months, the filmmaker's professionalism evolved into sincere closeness with Mercado, and some, though not all, of the walls came down.

“He started as this magical being in our childhood memories," Costantini says, "then slowly became a real person to us, and eventually he turned into an eccentric, fabulous tio abuelo [great uncle]. By the end we were very close to the family.”

Testament to that earned and mutual affection is that Tabsch and Fumero served as pallbearers at Mercado’s funeral in Cupey, Puerto Rico.

The maximalist

“We jokingly used to ask him if he would describe himself as a minimalist and he would say, ‘No, I’m a maximalist,’ and that was true for more than just his fashion and decor," Tabsch says. "He had saved material that spanned the entirety of his life and career. There were loads of photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and programs — much, much more than what we could use in the film.”

Countless hours were spent digitizing those mementos with the help of the Wolfson Archives in Miami. The more intimate the relationship between the team and Walter and his family became, the more access they were given to go hunting in his home, which was, as Tabsch puts it, a treasure trove. Tons of VHS tapes of TV appearances were in his closet, under beds and in bookcases, and a stash of Betamax tapes with recordings of some of his earliest shows was found in the laundry room.

To complement the monumental amount of archival footage and heart-to-heart interviews, the directors used animation as a vehicle to creatively engage the audience in key moments of Mercado’s life. Created by artist and filmmaker Alexa Lim Haas, the animated sequences are stylistically inspired by Walter's preferred Tarot cards, the Rider Waite Deck.

But with so much gold on hand, some of the most candid moments didn’t find a place in the film’s final edit. Cut scene highlights include a dinner party Mercado hosted for his lifelong friend, where Fumero believed they would finally get someone to talk about his secretive love life. But none of his confidants broke their silence. Also cut was a bizarrely tender moment of Mercado pre-chewing food for his beloved dog Runo, a stray he rescued and fell head over heels for, as well as a humorous anecdote about Mercado trying to learn English and struggling because of his heavy accent, which on one occasion made him mispronounced the word “focus” to sound like the F-word.

“He was very much like Norma Desmond from 'Sunset Boulevard,'" Tabsch says. "The house is similar and he shared that grand personality at all time.”

“It’s like visiting the North Pole and you are about to meet Santa,” explains Fumero. “Walter’s house is a combination of your abuela’s house and an ashram. When you walk in you see all these little Lladró figurines everywhere, then mala beads and Ganesh images, but also a Virgen de la Caridad statue, and at the same time it’s a museum to Walter.”

For Mercado’s nieces Ivonne and Betty Benet Mercado, he was a magical entity of flesh and blood. “When we were very young he would dress up as Santa and played with us. He was an excellent uncle, almost like a father to us,” says Ivonne. Extravagant but always caring, Mercado was a constant part of their lives, and as they grew older, every time a new baby was born in the family he would ask for the child's time of birth to get a precise horoscope.

“There was no difference between the uncle with the capes that we saw on TV and the uncle in our everyday life,” adds Betty. “He was just as glamorous off-camera.”

Now in charge of preserving the lavish and heavy garments (many of which are double-sided since he would film a month’s worth of content during a single shoot), the sisters are excited to share them with his fans. They say there’s interest from the Smithsonian to display Walter Mercado’s capes and artifacts as part of a celebration of famous Latinos; however, the pandemic has delayed those plans.

The two Boricuas

Ostentatious as his façade may have been, Mercado never took himself too seriously. Though he didn’t always get new trends, he adored the idea of the youth maintaining his image alive on Internet.

“We tried to show him memes one day and they were way over his head,” Costantini says. Still, as long as there was no malice in his depiction, he could handle them with humor. Parodies of Mercado had emerged over the decades, the most famous being impersonations by Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez, who for his 1990s sketch show “Al Derecho y al Derbez” portrayed a character in homage to Mercado called Julio Esteban.

“People might not understand that Walter was in on his own joke," Costantini says. "He understood what he looked like and what he was doing. That’s the brilliance of it all. Like in any religion, you have to dress things up in order for the message to carry. These things that seem trivial are actually quite important to his success. As little kids we were enthralled by the capes, but his message is the thing that sticks around for so long in so many of us, that feeling of love.”

One of the kids nourished by Mercado’s radiant aura is none other than Puerto Rican American superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. Fumero, who’d previously worked as an executive for HBO, harnessed his network to make contact with the playwright. Through his efforts and the benevolence of mercurial forces on their side, they managed to arrange a meeting of the two Boricuas, Mercado and Miranda, while the latter was in Puerto Rico to perform “Hamilton.”

Through his emotional reaction, Miranda functioned as an avatar for the filmmakers and, in turn, for many Latinos in the audience who will wholeheartedly comprehend the magnitude of the encounter. “We couldn't be in the documentary explaining how we felt about Walter, but Lin could,” Fumero says.

For Costantini, Miranda’s moving experience was not surprising but utterly relatable. She knew the mass appeal and international viability of a movie about Mercado and thought it would be easy to get money to bring it to fruition. It was a no-brainer for anyone attuned to the Latino community; however, the gatekeepers weren’t. When she and her collaborators got into boardrooms trying to pitch Mercado's story to mostly white executives, those on other side of the table couldn’t see the potential.

Both as a morale boost and a practical asset, Miranda’s involvement came at a time when the team needed it the most. They had almost no money at that point, but he provided a sense of validation and a weapon to push on.

“The fact that we had this footage of Lin freaking out about Walter is what helped us sell it, because that allowed people who didn’t grow up with Walter to believe that he was just this big of a deal,” Costantini says. “The entire way of making the film has been a process of finding the Latino person who can tell their white friends why this movie needs to get made. I don’t know if it could have been made 10 years ago in the mainstream way that’s been made now. I’m not sure there were enough Latinos in positions of power to trust us.”

For over a year and a half of the production, there was no actual budget in place, and the three had gotten into debt to pursue this vision. It was a gamble, but they knew Mercado’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Left with little time to second-guess, they moved forward.

“We were entrusted with Walter’s legacy and had the responsibility of getting that right," says Tabsch, who is Cuban American. "But we were also the Latino filmmakers making a Latino film for a wide audience — sometimes we say that means a white audience — and we had the responsibility of doing it right because it always feels like it’s the only shot you are going to get.”

“When you are a Latino filmmaker," Fumero adds, "you have to fight tooth and nail for even the most interesting projects.”

In retrospect, the filmmakers say undertaking such risk was a minuscule price in exchange for the privilege to spend time with someone so significant to so many.

“The most exciting thing to him about the three of us is that we were ‘young filmmakers’ or young to him,” Costantini says. She fondly recalls how Mercado would introduce them as “his filmmakers,” as if they were part of his entourage rather than independent artists capturing his fabulous story. Yet there was no reason to correct him; they felt blessed to enter his inner circle.

“I would be a planet in his solar system any day.”

Even today Costantini and her fellow filmmakers speak about Mercado in the present tense, as if the timeless clairvoyant was still physically among us. That may be a side effect of how recent his passing feels or perhaps, as he would have liked, they’ve subconsciously internalized the belief that his energy remains untouched by the transition of death and that, from whatever constellation his soul resides in now, he is sending us all cosmic, unending amor.