I’m far from a Netflix junkie. After I sign off from work for the day and put my daughter to bed, my evening routine usually consists of catching up on the news. But as the collective turmoil and loss of the pandemic has affected us all, escapism has become necessary for my sanity — and this desire for a break from reality is what sucked me in to the new Netflix documentary Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, which released July 8.
His name conjures up fond memories of watching his horoscope segment on the news magazine show Primer Impacto on Univision with my Abuelita before dinner as a kid. But it had disappeared from my mind for the last 20 years — partially because Mercado disappeared from the public eye for the last 10. So, what happened to the divine-like, transvestite astrologer who was a fixture in Latino households around the world for 50 years? That’s exactly the question that Mucho, Mucho Amor answers, along with a message we can all benefit from now. His story is one of acceptance and struggle that will leave you crying — but also feeling uplifted.
The film starts out chronicling Mercado’s life growing up in a rural village in Puerto Rico, where his neighbors believed he had healing powers as a boy after he brought a bird back to life. He not only was thought to have a divine touch, but he behaved differently and didn’t partake in the traditionally male activities other boys did. Mercado shares what his mother told him early on: “If you are different, go on being different. Don’t worry about that. To be different is a gift. To be ordinary is common.”
This acceptance and encouragement propelled him as an adult to break through deep-seated homophobia and gender constructs in Latin America. “Growing up as a queer boy and watching Walter gave me hope,” LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo says in Mucho, Mucho Amor.
The biographic documentary takes viewers from his humble beginnings in Puerto Rico to the start of his television career to the way in which he expanded his brand globally, and then through a legal battle that took a toll on his health. It culminates with the opening of a retrospective exhibition on his work and influence at the History Miami Museum that took place in August of 2019, just a few months before his death. What really captivates you, though, is what made him so inimitable and engendered such adoration.
A student of dance, Mercado knew the power of performance. In his nightly readings, he used mannerisms in flamenco and other genres to capture his audience. It worked — I can attest. “People love all that kind of stupid things. So [I] use stupid things to teach, to help, to serve, to give the beautiful message of love and peace,” he explains.
Mercado’s delivery paired with his exotic look — outlandish costumes that often had a cape, makeup, and “glamorous grandma hair” — is what helped him captivate the world. He transcended cultures at a time (the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s) when Latino culture was still very much sidelined in the United States. Growing up, I wasn’t aware of his crossover status, but the documentary shows how truly remarkable it was. He appeared on The Howard Stern Show, Regis & Kelly, Sally Jessie Rafael, and even did a private astrological session for President Reagan.
Part of what made him so magnetic was that his horoscopes offered people hope. “He made you believe through the force of his oratory,” says Hamilton playwright and lead Lin-Manuel Miranda, who appears in the documentary. “I just think he’s this positive force.”
Mucho, Mucho Amor also details the travails that led to Mercado’s disappearance for a decade — a hard-fought legal battle after he unwittingly signed away his rights to his work and his image. Although Mercado wasn’t able to continue working and influencing the world as he had, he ends by saying that the mundane or life as it is now is as good as it gets. “Heaven is today. Heaven is now.”
Thank you, Walter Mercado, for that last much-needed message to the world.
Before you go, check out 16 things you may have missed from Hamilton lyrics: