And Mucho, Mucho Makeup: the Story of Walter Mercado

I had no idea of who Walter Mercado was until I arrived in the US in the early 90s and discovered his campy astrological readings on Spanish language TV. At the time, I thought he was a total fake. Too much hairspray, too much plastic surgery, too much everything. More than predictions, his prognostications were like a cheering squad. I wanted my zodiac readings to micromanage my future, and he never said anything concrete. I didn’t get him.

Well, as I watched the documentary about him on Netflix, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Walter Mercado that emerges in this movie was a fabulously lovable man. He was an outlier who defended himself from the cruelty of being born exuberantly gay in the Puerto Rican countryside by owning his difference, and then some.

Latino culture is infamously homophobic, yet paradoxically, our machismo has embraced a few beloved gay icons. One is Juan Gabriel, the great Mexican divo, another one is Chavela Vargas, the great Costa Rican-Mexican diva, and the other one is Walter Mercado. They transcended prejudice, ignorance, and hatred and were adored by millions of people across the Spanish-speaking world because of their enormous talent and in spite of their evident queerness. Juan Gabriel and Chavela are among the foremost composers and interpreters of Mexican song. Walter’s talent was as a born entertainer. From the stills and footage of his days as a dancer and actor, it’s clear that he was a monumental ham but was always a great showman. Walter loved the spotlight and the adoration of the public. He was very vain yet he spread cheer and positivity. He delivered his daily horoscopes like a stern but loving aunt, not cloyingly, but with the tremendous conviction of a clairvoyant. “You are strong, Aquarius! You will prevail!”

Like his extravagant capes and meteorite-sized jewelry, he wore his relentless optimism as a shield against a cruel world. He created a fabulous persona who dispensed spiritual mumbo jumbo and whose message was consistently unfailing: you will triumph against adversity. All you need is mucho, mucho amor, a whole lotta love, as Led Zeppelin would have it.

Mercado created an amalgam of religious and superstitious spirituality that is typical of many Latino cultures — in his particular recipe it was a mix of monotheism with santería, astrology, palm reading, Eastern mysticism, reincarnation, and homeopathy (his medicine cabinet is a cornucopia of FDA non-approved remedies. I didn’t see a single conventional medication). He was a pantheist: God is everywhere, He resides inside each one of us, and all religions are basically the same.

The documentary reveals the reason for Walter’s mysterious disappearance from the spotlight. It turns out that contrary to public speculation at the time he disappeared, he didn’t die, or went to live in a huge mansion, or in a cave, or in the Milky Way. The reason for his absence from TV is pedestrian and very sad. Ever trusting, Walter signed a contract without reading it. He lost millions of dollars. Worse, he was rendered contractually unable to perform in front of millions of people. This deprived him of his reason to live.

Happily, the documentary ends in a moment of glory before Walter finally shuffles off his mortal coil. Even though it is is a love fest, the directors Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch wisely let the campiness speak for itself. His capes, his sets, his sinuous moves, the kitschy spirituality, the Walter Mercadoness of it all is garishly magnificent. Even though by his standards of luxuriousness he should live in a much grander mansion, his surprisingly modest house in Puerto Rico still telegraphs Walter Mercado. The filmmakers refrain from editorializing, letting a couple of the few unlikable talking heads (looking at your unfunny homophobic shtick, Eugenio Derbez) damn themselves.

Whenever I watch documentaries that are this full of lavish praise I wonder what is being left out. Was Walter’s father cruel to him? Was Walter truly naive about his potentially exploitative 1–900 hotline manned by 4000 psychics, the first of its kind? Was he really this enthusiastic and positive about everything? No one in the film disputes it.

Like many gay Latinos, Walter refused to officially come out. His sexual orientation was un secreto a voces, a very loud secret, as we say in Spanish. Like a gay man says in the movie, “you don’t ask about what is evident.” Latino families and entire Spanish-speaking countries have been practicing the absurd charade of “don’t ask don’t tell” long before the US Army came up with the idea. Given his flamboyant persona, there was nothing left to come out of — Walter Mercado wore the entire closet, if not all the closets, at all times. But he insisted that his sexuality was nobody’s business, mischievously implying in the movie that he was the only virgin in town. His tongue in cheek relationship with his own queer fabulousness may be part of the reason why he was so adored. He didn’t take himself too seriously. At the beginning of the film, Walter says a line in Spanish that made me hoot with laughter: “so you don’t remember what you did in your past life, so what?” Now, I’d love to hear more of his pearls of wisdom.

Well, chapeau for what Walter Mercado did in his past life. I hope it is all true. For a fortune teller, he encouraged people to live fully in the present and to love life, and for all the attention he craved, he gave people of all 12 zodiac signs all of his attention and his blessings. I hate to bring you know who into this, but it’s good to know that not all narcissists with big hair are malignant sociopaths. Mucho Mucho Amor is the surprisingly moving and inspiring story of an indefatigable entertainer who, refreshingly, seems to not have been an asshole. It’s a lovely antidote to these terrible days.

A Jewish Aztec Princess with strong opinions about film, food, and human foibles. Cofounder of dada.nyc

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