Netflix's Walter Mercado documentary gives him the international star treatment he earned

"Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado" explains what the icon meant to Puerto Ricans and queer Latinxs by being so beloved and so authentic.
Image: Walter Mercado
"Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado."Courtesy of Netflix
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By Susanne Ramírez de Arellano, journalist and cultural critic

In the final scenes of the new Netflix documentary "Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado," a frail Mercado is carried out of his dressing room like Cleopatra on a golden throne, to be adored by his public one last time at an exhibition of his capes and jewelry in Miami. Nothing else would have been good enough for a life lived so spectacularly or a person gilded by magnificent capes encrusted with Swarovski crystals, whose wrists were ever adorned with gold and whose tapered fingers were ever set off by enormous rings.

More than just a bejeweled astrologer, though, Walter Mercado became the 12th astrological sign of the zodiac — a Pisces — incarnate, delivering his message even in death: Be true to yourself, and believe in love above all things.

And now Walter Mercado is trending. He would have loved that.

To the uninitiated, it is important to understand that Mercado was aspirational before Oprah was even inspirational. On the surface, he was a Puerto Rican astrologer with soap opera good looks; he was a flamboyant, lip-glossed Liberace with great hair. But he was also a force of Puerto Rican culture who bent the gender rules and whose career as a radio and television personality spanned 50 full years, from 1969 until his death in November at 87.

Yes, he was and is so much more than the rings and capes and feathered hair of his publicity shots: He was the first gender-fluid person we ever saw on television in Puerto Rico, and he wasn't a caricature or a clown or a tragic figure but just utterly, thoroughly himself. Mercado was a force of nature — a star that exploded into a constellation.

From a young age, he says in the documentary, he "wanted to create a famous person on me." And he did create an astrological magnificence.

The legend of Walter began when he was a young child in Ponce (a city on the southern coast of Puerto Rico), where — according to the story — he healed a bird with just his touch. They called him "Walter of the Miracles," a child healer. He grew into a dancer and a telenovela actor before a television appearance launched his career as an astrologer. At the pinnacle of his fame, he held the attention of millions — on radio and television and in print.

"Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado."Courtesy of Netflix

"Mucho, Mucho Amor," by filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, is nothing less than a love letter to Walter, following him for two years and ending just months before his death. He looks so frail, though his bejeweled hands could still stir the air like the greatest of flamenco dancers and his trademark finish — "Y mucho, mucho amor" — remained.

The film is not just a gem; it also is the first time I have seen Puerto Rico presented as it really is and not as white writers, directors or producers imagine it to be. Walter and Puerto Rico are one and the same, portrayed with a tenderness that made me choke back tears.

I grew up, as we all did, with Walter. We waited for his year-end predictions, what color we should wear for love and luck, what candles to burn and what to throw away. We believed in him; he was our pope.

When I was very young, my great aunt Titi Margot explained away Walter's so-called fabulousness as the outcome of a tragedy. The story was that Walter had lost the love of his life, a woman, in a tragic, horrible plane crash — fiery, of course — and he was never the same thereafter. I never found out who that woman was supposed to be, but I was told that he couldn't love a woman again because no one else would do, so he loved all of us, instead.

I'm sure I knew it was a lie.

The film touches extensively on Mercado's importance to a younger generation of queer Latinxs who could turn to Walter and see parts of themselves in an icon who was adored. Walter embraced his androgyny and his amazingness with pride; when asked about his sexuality, he would answer: "Lo que se ve, no se pregunta" ("What is obvious need not be questioned"). Or as he says in another part of the film: "You do not rehearse who you are."

"There are so many societal laws that he broke," LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo says in the film. "It goes beyond coming out."

My friend Suset Laboy, founder of A Little Awareness and LalaboyPR, explained Mercado's uniqueness beautifully to me: "On an island built on patriarchal and Catholic stilts, Walter shone brightly as to what was possible beyond those structures," she said. "Growing up, I never felt like I quite fit in within traditional Puerto Rican norms, and watching him on television, delivering his New Year's predictions, with his incredibly authentic self, watching him normalize a desire to understand things beyond what was in front of me, was revolutionary."

It is an older and frail Walter whom we encounter in his San Juan home, which looks just like the home of my mother-in-law — elaborate furnishings in the style of Louis XVI, oil paintings of Walter in his regalia, porcelain Lladro figurines, Buddhas and Catholic religious icons mixed together everywhere. And, of course, there is the light — that soft, clear light of the Caribbean.

There are touching, human moments of Mercado putting on his makeup, getting his hair done, struggling during a photo shoot, but never giving up. It is in those moments that you realize you are watching a film not about the end of a life but about the transition into another one, with mucho, mucho amor — because Walter Mercado is still trending, and he will never leave.