Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine any TV program drawing in millions of rapt viewers across dozens of countries on a nightly basis for nearly two decades. But that’s precisely the kind of sway that astrologer Walter Mercado held over the Western Hemisphere from 1995 to 2009. At the height of his fame, Mercado’s message of peace and love reached 120 million people, through TV and radio segments and a newspaper column. The key to his popularity wasn’t prognostication, but artistry; with flamenco-like hand gestures and a piercing gaze, the late TV personality and author had a way of making his horoscopes—which, in retrospect, could be vague—feel tailor-made for you.
The Netflix documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend Of Walter Mercado is a glittering portrait of a performer as renowned for his bejeweled capes as his unremitting optimism. Documentarians Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch obtained unprecedented access to Mercado, who disappeared from the public eye more than 10 years ago only to return with the same big-hearted philosophy, vibrant wit, and extravagant fashion sense. Mucho Mucho Amor opens with fans, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eugenio Derbez, theorizing about what happened to Mercado in the previous decade to send him into seclusion (or, as someone posits, another plane entirely). The answer is one that’s all too common in stories of stardom—nonfiction or otherwise.
Perhaps the most conventional thing about Mucho Mucho Amor is its structure, which immediately travels from a cloudy present (or rather, 2019) back to 1932, the year Mercado was born. From there, it steadily makes its way through a troubling second act up to Mercado’s millennial-driven resurgence. The documentary is further organized in tarot-inspired chapters, including one titled “The Cloaked Man.” As befits its resplendent subject, these sections are introduced with fanciful animation—at one point, an ailing Mercado is transported to a hospital in Cleveland by a pair of intricately drawn hands. These sequences are more than just embellishments, however: Costantini and Tabsch, along with their producer, Alex Fumero, grew up with Mercado on their TVs, and have an obvious affection for their subject. Through the animation, they pay homage to Mercado’s ability to make even the briefest of anecdotes come to life, a skill he displays himself in Mucho Mucho Amor’s many, many talking head interviews.
“Flamboyant” doesn’t begin to describe Mercado, who as a child in Puerto Rico, was known as “Walter de milagros” (“Walter of Miracles”) for his purported healing abilities. His mother never tried to make him conform to any social or gender norms—Mercado says she encouraged him to embrace being “different,” because “ordinary” is boring. The young Mercado took that blessing and threw himself into the arts scene in Ponce, where he became a dancer before acting in telenovelas. As a student of tarot and astrology, Mercado did readings for his co-stars and collaborators in his downtime, which is what led to his big break.
Mercado’s star continued to rise, a journey that Mucho Mucho Amor charts through platforms (he added radio and print media) and into a confrontation with his former manager, Guillermo “Bill” Bakula. Not that Mercado saw it that way: Even in interviews given to the filmmakers in 2019, he remains generous in his description of Bakula, calling him an “angel.” But a contract dispute with Bakula, which saw Mercado unknowingly sign over the rights to his name, is partly responsible for the fabulous seer—or “vidente”—retreating from public view with his longtime assistant and companion, Willy Acosta.
Mucho Mucho Amor features a treasure trove of archival footage and glimpses of Mercado’s exquisite wardrobe, including 10- to 15-pound capes designed by Versace and Isaac Mizrahi that still could not bow the astrologer in his prime. Even more so than the animated sequences, film editor Tom Maroney gives the documentary its shape, moving the action from the Primer Impacto studio where Mercado ruled for 15 minutes at a time to a tense courtroom battle rendered solely through sketches to Mercado’s stately home in Ponce, where, in 2019, he prepared for the debut of a Miami exhibit dedicated to his life.
Costantini and Tabsch remain gimlet-eyed about the Latinx icon—their film is an undeniably loving tribute, but it’s also an expansive look at Mercado’s life. Mercado’s gender-nonconforming (not to mention magnificent) presentation made him a queer pioneer. But when asked about his sexual orientation, he demurs, and the filmmakers don’t press the matter beyond a follow-up question, which Mercado pertly deflects. Still, the cameras rest on a pair of framed photographs; one is Mercado’s, the other, Oscar Wilde’s. There’s no agenda, just curiosity; the same lens seeks out the clutter of religious statues and nutritional supplements that make Mercado’s stately Ponce manor look more like an abuelita’s house (though the furniture is not covered in plastic).
Mucho Mucho Amor also considers Mercado’s legacy, both as a patron saint for Latin American immigrants, Latinx weirdos, and queer people—like make-up artist Karlo Karlo, for whom Mercado’s “fabulosity” opened doors, and a brand. Along with his legal battle against Bakula, Mercado also had to deal with the fallout from 900 numbers in the early ’00s; he says the goal of those hotlines was to impart inspirational words, not predictions, but the archived commercials that bookend his statements gently qualify that assertion. But Mucho Mucho Amor is just concerned with providing as complete a picture of Mercado as a person, including interviews with his family (six nieces, who carry on his work), famous admirers like Miranda and Derbez, former bosses like Maria Lopez Alvarez, and broadcast peers like Raúl de Molina.
In creating this portrait, Costantini and Tabsch never lose sight of the context that frames Mercado’s talent and success. His flair and joie de vivre are inspirational, but even more so when you consider that he grew up in an even more oppressive environment. As one former collaborator notes, Mercado almost certainly wouldn’t have achieved the level of fame if he’d ever come out as gay. Mercado proved you could be idolized while still being othered, a fact that’s too often glossed over in stories of marginalized people who break down barriers. But that reality couldn’t dampen Mercado’s love–or lust, as he put it—for life, nor does it prevent Mucho Mucho Amor from radiating with it.