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Walter Mercado Was a Trailblazer Who Never Let Us See Behind the Mask

The gender-nonconforming Latinx astrologer decided at an early age to be his own fabulous creation. Netflix’s new documentary ‘Mucho Mucho Amor’ honors this beloved figure — but stays, disappointingly, on the surface

“Since the moment I was born, I know that I was not like everybody,” Walter Mercado says early on in Mucho Mucho Amor, a documentary about the beloved, gender-nonconforming Latinx astrologist and TV personality. “When I saw other boys, I know that I have another way of life.” He recalls that his brothers would ride horses with their father; meanwhile, “I stay[ed] with my mother, playing the piano and reading books. Everything about me was different.” Encouraged by his mom to embrace what made him unique, he set out to “create a famous person in me.” 

And for the next 80 years or so, Mercado achieved just that, crafting a fabulous, opulent persona that flouted the homophobic, ultra-macho culture in which he grew up. He was so authentically himself that even those who mocked Mercado couldn’t stop him. How can you contain a force of nature?

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado is both animated and slightly limited by its flamboyant subject. Arriving on Netflix today, the film (directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch) tells Mercado’s incredible story, including his mysterious retreat from the spotlight in his ’70s, by speaking to family members, former business associates, fans and, most winningly, Mercado himself. What emerges is a portrait of self-determination that’s often delightful and inspiring.

But the filmmakers have a tough time getting underneath Mercado’s well-crafted mask. A fortune teller who espoused the importance of love and positivity — he’d end his broadcasts by warmly declaring “Mucho, mucho amor” to the camera — Mercado projected a carefully manicured image so powerfully that it’s hard to get a sense of the “real” Walter. But as Mucho Mucho Amor argues pretty convincingly, that didn’t matter to his legions of fans all around the world. They loved him for exactly who he was, which is all he ever wanted.

Mercado grew up in an impoverished community in Puerto Rico, and as he tells the filmmakers, at a young age he found a dying bird he claims to have brought back to health simply by praying and blowing on it. Thus began his career as a miracle worker — and, possibly, of exaggerating stories to burnish his legend. He started out as an actor and a dancer before he discovered his true calling. Dressed in magnificent capes and dazzling costumes, he developed a loyal following on local television by offering astrological predictions for each sign. 

With the showmanship and pizzazz of Liberace, Mercado soon captured a global audience that spread across North and South America all the way to Europe. Viewers tuned in to hear his projections but also to marvel at the very sight of this eccentric, joyous character with heavily feminine features, noticeable makeup and bold hairdos. (Paraphrasing one of the film’s talking heads, the man’s hair was a combination of 1970s-style incredible and kooky-old-grandma silly.) 

Mucho Mucho Amor makes good use of its ample archival footage from his TV shows, which started in the late 1960s, and every clip is incredibly sincere but lovably campy. He was outlandish, but his comforting, upbeat predictions resonated with viewers. Mercado never wanted to give the audience bad news — he wanted them to have faith that a higher power was taking care of them.

Was he a true believer or a scam artist? In a world that would soon be dominated by Miss Cleo and other 1-800 phone-a-psychics, Mercado might seem like the original huckster, and it’s funny that even some of his fans who speak on camera admit that they don’t believe in astrology but believe in him. Costantini and Tabsch occasionally brush up against the fact that Mercado might have just been a well-coiffed snake-oil salesman — in an interview, he claims to never make predictions that viewers will win the lottery, which is then juxtaposed with archival clips of him doing just that — but on the whole Mucho Mucho Amor is a very adoring view of the man. And that’s largely because of what he represented for his admirers, who saw in him an outsider like themselves.

The filmmakers talk to LGBTQ activists as well as superfans like Lin-Manuel Miranda, creating a snapshot of a progressive icon who largely stumbled into the role. For a lot of young people — queer or Latinx or both — who never saw anyone on television who looked like them, this unbridled astrologer who preached a gospel of compassion made them feel less alone. Uptight Latinx comics would do cruel impressions of Mercado, playing him as emasculated and gay, but he would never acknowledge his sexuality, whether in old interviews clips or in the documentary. (In one archival video, he’s asked if he’s heterosexual. “I’m married to my public,” Mercado responds. “To my people.”) Like Liberace, Mercado was so over-the-top that he seemed bulletproof: What could homophobes do to someone this unconcerned with what others thought of him?

Because Mucho Mucho Amor is so clearly on Mercado’s side, it sometimes misses an opportunity to examine his complexity. It’s clear that he’s had some work done, but when he’s questioned about it, he admits to only a little Botox, “like Nicole Kidman.” To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having plastic surgery, but it speaks to Mercado’s driving desire to remake himself — as well as his fear of growing old, even though he insists that death doesn’t scare him. That famous person he wanted to construct as a boy turned out to be part of his life’s work, and it’s natural to wonder where the persona ends and the real person begins. But Mucho Mucho Amor doesn’t quite go there, keeping things on the surface. 

As a result, we get a documentary that’s more of a tribute than an exploration. (Mercado died late last year, at the age of 87, just a couple months before the film’s Sundance premiere.) And yet, Mercado’s story is a poignant one, especially at a time when LGBTQ rights are being threatened worldwide and immigrants are demonized. (The film doesn’t even mention the hardships that Mercado’s homeland of Puerto Rico has faced in recent years.) In the early 2000s, Mercado stopped doing public appearances, and Mucho Mucho Amor delves into exactly what happened. (Turns out, it’s a pretty sad tale that illustrates the perils of not carefully reading the contract you’re pressured into signing.) And as he got older, health issues started to pile up — the swagger and style he brought to his every broadcast and photo shoot couldn’t deter the back pain and ailments that were sapping his spirit.

Ultimately, Walter Mercado remains a bit of an enigma, but the documentary’s final segment articulates how much he meant to those who worshipped him. At a career retrospective in Miami near the end of his life, he’s swarmed by fans, and Mucho Mucho Amor suggests that, in our Instagram age, he has found new life in a thousand memes as a gay/Latinx hero. When Miranda meets with Mercado, he’s so emotionally overwhelmed that he has to keep from crying in the man’s presence. “You’re a light in our lives,” the Hamilton star tells him. 

Costantini and Tabsch have obvious affection for a trailblazer who knew he’d never be like anybody else. It’s customary to call a LGTBQ pioneer like Walter Mercado “brave,” but the documentary makes the case that it wasn’t courage that made him the man he was. He simply couldn’t imagine living any other way.