At the height of his decades-long career on Spanish-language television, Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado reached about 120 million people with his inspirational Zodiac sign readings. Now, eight months after his death, Mercado is poised to reach millions more; Mucho Mucho Amor, a documentary about the famed mystic’s life, debuts on Netflix this week.
Co-directors Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini and producer Alex Fumero began working on the film after Mercado’s moving-out-of-Miami estate sale in 2017 attracted a surprising number of young people and got the three filmmakers talking about the Puerto Rican icon’s legacy. Mercado began as a dancer and actor, but found fortune using his flair for the dramatic as an astrologist on TV shows such as Primer Impacto. He drew comparisons to celebrities such as Liberace with his flamboyant, sequin-adorned capes and robes, his coiffed blonde hair, and his augmented facial features, which only added to his mystique. Despite never having come out as gay or non-binary, Mercado became an LGBQT icon for preaching acceptance and breaking gender norms on Spanish-language TV over his long career.
“He was on-camera for 50-plus years and so he had 50-plus years of rehearsed answers to every question. He didn’t dwell on the negative or the ugly parts of life. The challenge was getting him to open up about things he did not want to talk about.”
Fumero and Tabsch spoke with LEVEL about getting to know Mercado as they filmed in his San Juan home — and what they hope viewers discover about the man who was so ubiquitous on television for so many years.
LEVEL: What convinced the three of you that Walter would be such an interesting subject for a documentary?
Alex Fumero: We all grew up watching him, and he was this commanding presence in our living rooms. We were under threat of the chancleta if you made any noise when Walter was on the TV screen. As we got older, we realized how unusual it was that someone who acted like Walter, who looks like Walter, would be so universally accepted in what is typically a more socially conservative culture. I met Kareem through mutual friends, and the first thing we talked about was Walter. I was in New York at the time, just when Walter was having an estate sale in Miami and selling off a bunch of stuff, so I was very jealous of people who were able to go. We set up a call a couple of weeks later to talk; Kareem had made contact with one of Walter’s nieces at that estate sale. A friend and former colleague from Fusion, where I worked before, Cristina Constantini, called me 30 minutes before this phone call, and she said, “I heard you’re obsessed with Walter Mercado from our mutual friends. I want to make a movie about him.” And I was like, man, this is really weird because I have a call with another director; maybe this is a sign that we should be working together. We all jumped on the call together, and within like an hour decided they would co-direct and I would produce.
I have to ask… did you get a cape from the estate sale?
Kareem Tabsch: It turns out that I’m a poor Latino filmmaker. So I did not walk away from the estate sale with a cape. I walked away with a lot of different little tchotchkes. I got the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre; it was one of the patron saints in Walter’s bedroom. I bought a crucifix that was on one of his walls. I was really gunning for these ridiculous, huge portraits of Walter over in the house, and I just wasn’t quick enough. The interesting thing about the estate sale was how many young people were there.
Seeing those capes in 4K for the first time, they are gorgeous and intricate.
Fumero: We only did the movie so we could wear the capes.
How difficult was it to get him to agree to have you in his home — and to open up that way?
Fumero: At the beginning, we didn’t even know how to contact him. He didn’t have agents listed; his web presence felt like it had not been updated in a long time. And so the estate sale allowed Kareem to meet flesh and blood. In that sense, we got lucky to make that level of contact that opened the door right away. But I think what we also discovered is that Walter sort of felt like his legacy was incomplete. He was reclusive in a sense, out of necessity, recuperating from a lot of stuff. But there were these competing interests; he was the type of guy who just wanted to be at home with his dog and his family, but also wanted to be in everyone’s minds all the time. And so I think that that second component was lacking for him when we found him.
Was his real self that different from what we saw on TV?
Tabsch: I just think it was a different octane level. When the cameras are on, and the lights are on, it fills him with this energy and this drive, and it’s Walter 200%. When the cameras are off, it’s Walter 125%, but it’s the same person, just at a different intensity. I mean, he’s not walking around the house wearing capes or sequins or with a ton of jewelry and makeup. He has a lot of makeup and jewelry on, but not a ton of it — more than the average person. But what you saw was what you got — somebody larger than life. Even when he was just in a quiet room, he felt larger than life. Even when he was ill and not doing well, he still just had this presence about him that was so natural. Walter was always his authentic self. What you saw was what you got, and like a human being, he’s complicated.
Fumero: His personality didn’t change, but he resisted being vulnerable. He [seemed like he] was just this ball of zen positivity, right? But Walter was a human being with hurt, physically and emotionally. And he does not like to delve into that.
Tabsch: That was probably the biggest challenge for us. He was on-camera for 50-plus years, and so he had 50-plus years of rehearsed answers to every question. He didn’t dwell on the negative or the ugly parts of life. The challenge was getting him to open up about things he did not want to talk about. And they weren’t the things you expect. Like, yeah, we push him on his sexuality quite a bit in the film. We push him about a couple of things that he didn’t want to talk about, particularly his legal challenges with his manager [Bill Bakula, who is interviewed in the film]. It might have been a coping mechanism.
Do you feel like he was entirely truthful about his origin story and how he grew up? Is that just myth-building?
Fumero: My point of view is, does it matter if it’s real or not? I started a cynic, and I’m still very cynical; it’s unlikely that he brought a baby bird back from near death. But do I care if astrology is real? Do I care if the psychic stuff is real? Ultimately, no, because it’s a packaging for a more important message: “Keep the faith, be yourself, love one another.”
Tabsch: It doesn’t pass the smell test, certainly. But it was his truth. And that’s ultimately what I think was important. It was the truth that he lived in the world that he created and inhabited. In many ways, that world that Walter created, we think it was a coping mechanism for being so different in a time and place that was very conservative, very machista, very Catholic. He knew that he had this thing inside of him. And he channeled and created this famous person by creating this world. It was important for us as filmmakers to kind of bring our viewers into Walter’s world.
There’s a moment in the documentary where you’re talking about the Psychic Friends Network (which Mercado was involved with and led to legal problems). What Walter says on-camera is at odds with the clip that you show right next to it. Someone’s not telling the truth, or Walter doesn’t exactly know the facts. Did you have the feeling that Walter knew that what he was saying wasn’t entirely truthful?
Tabsch: You know, it’s really complicated for us. Walter had people in his ear telling him this is all on the up and up. You’re fine. Walter is a very trusting person; I would say blindly trusting. So I think that he made decisions by blindly trusting, and sometimes when we blindly trust, we subconsciously decide to put our blinders on and not look at the things that may be evidenced to other people. But it was also important for us to hold his feet to the fire for a bit. I mean, we had ethical issues with the psychic hotline. At the end of the day, the question really remains, was this about tearing somebody down — somebody who’s a human being — or do we really want to show the fact that as a human being, there’s good and bad? Good people make mistakes. Good people do things that, in retrospect, they may not ultimately have done again or been particularly proud of. I don’t believe that Walter, with the benefit of hindsight, was particularly proud of the psychic hotlines. It kind of contributed to his downfall, and what started to unravel his relationship with his manager. But their message, which was one of inclusion and love and hope and peace, was bigger and more important than some of the mistakes he made.
Had the film been finished and edited when Walter died?
Tabsch: We were still in the process of editing, and we had submitted it [to Sundance]. We submitted to Sundance on November 1, and Walter died on November 2. He was only able to see 20 minutes of it. We went to Puerto Rico; we went for the funeral. We brought a cameraperson just in case there was something like an epilogue we wanted to add. But ultimately, this is the story of his life; he’s a legendary, eternal figure. It didn’t really feel appropriate.
How did Walter’s constant positivity contribute to his longevity and success?
Fumero: His audience was largely immigrant Latinos in the United States. They faced a lot of hardship when they got here to create a better life for folks like us. And so being told, “You’re going to get through this day, don’t worry,” was like a crucial dose of hope. For Latin Americans, well, we know there’s incredible wealth disparity. There’s a reason that all those immigrants left Latin America to come to the United States. And their lives are not typically easy on a day-to-day basis. So I think his positivity, his message, was extraordinarily relevant for the audience he delivered it to. Walter was like if Tony Robbins was Oprah.
How did the meeting of Walter Mercado and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the film come together?
Fumero: One of my best friends is a guy named Utkarsh Ambudkar, who was in a group called Freestyle Love Supreme with Lin-Manuel. They’ve been friends for a really long time. So I asked Utkarsh and said to just tell him that it’s a Walter Mercado thing. I guarantee you he’s gonna want to do it. And sure enough, he turned down every other appearance like he turned down all the press in Puerto Rico related to his Hamilton in Puerto Rico performance. The only thing he agreed to do outside of that was meet Walter Mercado.
What do you hope people take away from the film now that it’s reaching such a large audience with Netflix?
Tabsch: As Latinos, we have been so fortunate that we’ve had Walter in our culture and our lives for decades. And it’s high time we get to share him with the rest of the world. Mucho Mucho Amor will be in 190 countries, translated and subtitled in 30 languages. It’s really going to allow a new generation to discover Walter. We’re living in such divided times, right? So many of our leaders are preaching division and what we really need is something to bring us together. Now more than ever, we need that message of love and peace and hope that for 50-plus years, Walter brought into our lives. And now he gets to bring it into the lives of others. And we get to celebrate a Latino icon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.