If you were Latinx during the final decades of the last century – and even if you weren’t – odds are good that the face of Walter Mercado was a familiar sight.
Already a local celebrity as a dancer and actor in his native Puerto Rico, Mercado began his rise to international stardom after an impromptu discussion of astrology during a TV interview proved so popular that he was asked to return to the show with regular daily reports on the same subject. Flaunting a carefully crafted yet unabashedly flamboyant persona, he became a staple of daily life in homes across Latin America and Europe, his popularity eventually spilling over into the U.S. and beyond to make him an icon at a level comparable to figures such as Oprah or even the Pope within Latinx cultures across the world.
The esteemed status to which he rose is even more remarkable considering the image he presented. Draped in ornate and theatrical robes, sporting make-up and a stylishly coiffed head of strawberry blond-ish hair, he made no effort to mask his feminine side; he wasn’t merely androgynous, he expressed gender in a way for which there was no non-insulting label back then, and yet he managed to transcend the stigma around sexual and gender non-conformity to find an audience within a community known – especially then – for traditional beliefs that often went hand-in-hand with homophobia and transphobia.
For a generation that grew up watching this larger-than-life figure with their abuelas on the couch, waiting eagerly for him to deliver his daily forecast for their own sign of the Zodiac, he was as comforting a presence as he was an outrageous one. Though these lifelong fans (such as fellow Puerto Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda) have remembered him with a bubbly, childlike reverence, few of them knew the reason behind his sudden disappearance from public view nearly a decade-and-a-half ago – at least until last week, when Netflix debuted its new documentary, “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,” a loving portrait that provides answers to that mystery while allowing the octogenarian trailblazer to take a much-deserved final bow before his passing at the age of 87 a few months after filming completed.
Deriving its title from Mercado’s customary expression of love at the end of his forecasts, the film gets up close and – gradually – personal with its subject, who was 85 when the filmmakers (directors Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, and producer Alex Fumero) began working with him on the project in 2017. Warm and welcoming from the start, Mercado clearly relishes his return to a place in front of the cameras and endeavors to show us that age and a retreat from the limelight have done nothing to diminish the grandeur of his style or his radiance; later, as things progress and he grows more comfortable and trusting of his cinematic biographers, he relaxes enough to give us glimpses of vulnerability, both in his reminiscences and in his willingness to participate despite his declining physical health as filming progresses – but even in his most fragile moments, he is never anything less than regal.
Much is revealed over the course of the documentary’s 96 minutes. Some of it, like hearing about how Walter’s “Character” was inspired and defined by happenstance and costume, serves as illuminating trivia that further augments his legend; other parts, such as the chronicle of betrayed trust and legal wrangling that resulted in his departure from the airwaves, carry a sense of loss that make his story more bittersweet than our knowledge that his appearance on our screen is now a posthumous one.
While such biographical detail may be informative, however, it’s at least partly because of what is NOT revealed that “Mucho Mucho Amor” stands out as something more remarkable than just another stream-of-the-week documentary.
Never apologetic or misleading about his sexuality or gender identity, Mercado nevertheless declined throughout his public life to put a label on himself; he used masculine pronouns, but beyond that he was neither male nor female, gay nor straight – he was simply Walter. The aged pioneer of alternative gender presentation maintains the same coquettish coyness around these topics here; we are introduced to his longtime partner, Willy Acosta, but told by both that their relationship is not a romantic or sexual one; we watch him field the curiosity of TV hosts in archival footage from his heyday, and we are informed of his dislike for imitations of himself (such as that done by famous Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez, who offers his own comments in the film) that he sees as parodying of those aspects of his persona.
This reticence to spill those kinds of secrets does not come off as obfuscation; rather, it is accompanied by a sparkly-eyed attitude that seems more like a friendly wink and smile than a deceptive dodge of the issue. The Mercado persona was always carefully crafted in a way which enveloped his gender-blending qualities in the shroud of his position as a populist spiritual leader, rendering acceptable that which might have been seen as taboo in someone with a more worldly role, and though a representative of his younger generation of fans might be able to describe him on camera as “non-binary” and “asexual,” it would be as disappointing as it was surprising were he to say those things about himself, even in today’s more welcoming atmosphere.
Yet, as the self-described “magician” at the center of this infectiously uplifting documentary might tell you himself, his refusal to identify is not a ploy to hide himself; he knows who he is, and he knows that we recognize him – even if we’re not sure whether to believe him entirely when he says his only relationship is with his faith. The ambiguity part of the image, and part of his message, too – an encouragement by example to embrace and live one’s truth without shame, and a loving challenge to those with closed minds about “otherness” to look past their judgments and open their hearts instead. It might be naïve to assume that Mercado, the veteran showman, would have intended all along for this elegantly polite subversion to be the entire point of the legend he created, but it’s probably fair to say it was always a light he intended to shine.
As for the legend itself, “Mucho Mucho Amor” leaves that more than intact. If anything, Mercado’s star shines brighter after viewing it, thanks to the persuasive authenticity of his belief in the mélange of spiritual and occult traditions he concocted around himself as he delivered his message – adamantly and always a positive one – to the millions of followers he touched throughout his life. For Walter Mercado, all religions were true, so why should he not take the things that spoke to him from each to create his own and believe in that one, too?
That sincerity, which came across in his broadcasts, still rings through loud and clear in “Mucho Mucho Amor,” and it carries, as always, an invitation to celebrate the power of love.