For decades, Puerto Rican astrologer and psychic Walter Mercado transfixed audiences worldwide with his flamboyant horoscope readings and, equally so, his extravagant costumes and gender-fluid presentation.
At the height of his career in the 1990s, Mercado reached an estimated 120 million viewers a day. Around 150 radio stations carried his programming. He consulted with prime ministers and presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Outside of his dramatics and opulent capes, Mercado’s ultimate messages of love and light made him a beacon of hope and one of the biggest celebrities in the world.
Then he disappeared.
After a six-year legal battle with his manager, Mercado all but went into seclusion.
Until documentary filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch tracked him down.
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legacy of Walter Mercado is an intimate portrait of Mercado, covering everything from his youth in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to his early career as a dancer and stage actor, to his eventual ascendence to international fame—and, of course, his decline from the spotlight.
“Walter is such a positive figure. He does not like to dwell on the negative elements of his life,” Tabsch says. “That was probably the hardest thing to get him to open up about, those difficult years with his legal battles. We spent two years with Walter filming. So in that time we gained his trust. That was paramount to get the access that we did—to get the man behind the cape, if you will.”
“It’s easy to think that Walter a punchline. It’s easy to be enthralled with the fabulousness. And I underestimated how intelligent he is,” Costantini says. “His whole shtick—the capes and the jewelry and the sequins—were part of his understanding of human nature. He says, ‘I wear these capes, this hair, this jewelry, all these stupid things, so that people pay attention to my more important message of love and peace.'”
In a way, Mucho Mucho Amor was set up as a comeback story. Here was this huge star who survived not only an intense legal battle over his contract and the rights to his own name, but also a heart attack not long after it was over. Despite the career setbacks, Mercado never faded from his fans’ minds. Costantini and Tabsch captured the lead up to an expansive exhibit of Mercado’s life and career at HistoryMiami Museum last August. It was his first major public appearance in years, and his joy of still being able to influence so many people across so many generations is one of the more touching moments in the doc.
However, just three months after the exhibit, Mercado passed away.
“We really told the story at the last possible moment,” Costantini says. “We didn’t know it was more of a swan song than more of a comeback story.”
Costantini says they submitted their doc to Sundance the day before Mercado died on November 2. After he passed, they went back to Puerto Rico to shoot more footage, including Mercado’s funeral.
“We edited a different ending, including some of that footage. In the end, we liked our original ending better,” Costantini says. “We felt like it was truer to Walter’s message that he is more than just his body, that his message is what’s important.”
For Costantini and Tabsch, that message has a particular resonance in today’s climate.
“We’re finally having real conversations now about gender identity and gender expression—Walter was having those conversations with us 30, 40 years ago,” Tabsch says. “Before the term gender queer existed, before non-binary was a concept that we could think of, he was telling us that the future is genderless. And, in that way, the film feels of the moment, and Walter feels that much more important for the LGBTQ community.”
“We live in a time when so many of our leaders are intent on reminding us of why we should hate other people, why we’re different from other people, why other people are out to get us. And I think this message of love that Walter has preached for so long is more necessary to hear now,” Costantini says. “If this film could get people to remember that, that would make me very happy. There’s definitely a lot of room for more love in the world.”
Mucho Mucho Amor premieres on Netflix July 8.