Sitting on a couch with his arm wrapped around his grandmother, actor and influencer Curly Velazquez speaks to the impact of one of his idols: Walter Mercado.
"Imagine there was, like, a 20-year-old right now who was, like, I'm gonna read you a horoscope, I'm nonbinary, I'm asexual. Are you kidding me? They'd be the biggest thing on Instagram!" he says. Though he rose to major prominence in the 90s and died last year, the beloved astrologer and Latinx icon’s famous astrology readings seemed like a premonition of a world where the fluidity of gender and sexuality, and fascination with birth charts and rising signs are in regular discussion on the timeline. In fact, he was arguably the blueprint for this unbound, cosmically connected way of life.
Mercado is the subject of Mucho Mucho Amor, a new Netflix documentary about a man whose flamboyant and androgynous fashion sense, exuberance for life, and genuine messages of love made him more than an icon in Latino households. He was like a deity—beloved and revered, both a television personality and a force of otherworldly power.
Directed by Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch, the film captures the final two years of Mercado's life, which he spent mostly inside his opulent fortress in his home country of Puerto Rico before his death in November 2019, at the age of 87. The film culminates in Mercado paying a visit to a retrospective on his life and work called Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado at HistoryMiami Museum, which opened in August 2019. It was at the opening of the exhibition that Mercado gave his final trademark dramatic wave of the hands for his adoring public. He died three months later.
The film beautifully captures the essence of the man with the flowing blonde blow-out and jewel-encrusted cape. Its title is a callback to the famous sign-off he would use at the conclusion of his televised readings, which would air on various Spanish-language evening news and entertainment shows, like Primer Impacto, during his five-decade career. Mercado would wave his hands over his heart with dance-like flourish, spiritually collecting "lots and lots of love" from his soul, then bringt his hands to his lips to send his message with a kiss.
Like many Latinx people all over the globe, she and Tabsch grew up watching Mercado on television—Constantini in Wisconsin surrounded by her Argentine family, and Tabsch in his Cuban-Lebanese household in Miami. They were brought together by producer Alex Fumero three years ago, after both filmmakers independently reached out to him about making a documentary about Mercado.
The day after they met up, Constantini told VICE, she and Tabsch jetted off to Puerto Rico to meet their idol. Constantini remembers a 70s-style sunken living room lined with extravagant decor. They waited 45 minutes until finally, Mercado entered the room, wearing all white linen and gold-rimmed Yves Saint Laurent glasses.
"He's just, like, floating, gliding, and he comes in above us" Constantini said, "He looked so stately and so magnificent, and held each of our hands and looked deep into our eyes. He looked into your soul." Contrary to his exuberant public persona, Tabsh remembers Mercado as someone who was genuinely kind, caring, and down-to-earth—just like the person who appeared on television, but at "a lower octane." "He had this intense look that made you feel like not only were you the most important person in the world, but you were the only person in the world in that moment," said Tabsch. "I would say [meeting Mercado] is the closest to a religious experience I've ever had," Constantini explained.
The fact that it took so long for Mercado's story to be told is disappointing considering the magnitude of his fame and importance in Latinx culture. "We kind of have a chip on our shoulder that we had to be the ones to do it because it seems so obvious," said Constantini. "He's such an icon. Everything about him deserves to be memorialized and captured." The visibility afforded by a Netflix production like this one (the film will be translated into 30 languages and shown in 190 countries) is a step in the right direction—not just because it gives Mercado the recognition he deserves, but also because of the opportunity it presents to tell richer, more nuanced story of Latinx identity, solidifying him as a symbol of hope for queer people in Latin America.
"For myself as a young queer boy who maybe didn't understand what queer meant, but knew that I was different, all of a sudden, I saw this person who was otherworldly and different in a way that I, too, hoped to be different—even though I wasn't as fabulous as Walter Mercado," Tabsch told VICE. "My family loved him, and our culture loved him, and if they could love him for being so different and out there, maybe they could love me. That was really impactful as a young queer boy."
Mercado's sexuality has long been a topic of simultaneous fascination and ridicule in Latin media. After he rose to fame, Latin American television hosts bombarded him with questions about his love life; comedians poked fun at him with exaggerated limp-wrist imitations and double entendres. Within the uber Catholic, homophobic, and misogynistic context of mainstream Latin American culture, he was an anomaly—partly because his gender identity and sexuality weren't easily identifiable. "The first time I saw Walter Mercado, it was a shock," says Eugenio Derbez, a famed Mexican comedian who appears in the film. "I was like, 'What is this that I'm watching?' It's a woman? It's a man? It's a sorcerer?" In one archival clip from the 90s, we see Derbez parody Mercado with an impersonation on one of his sketch comedy shows. Mercado notoriously hated any and all imitations of him.
When the filmmakers ask Mercado why he's never spoken about his sexuality, he responds with an enigmatic prose-poem: "I have sexuality with the wind, with the flowers in the garden, with all the beautiful displays of nature. I don't need a person especially to make me happy or to have an orgasmic experience. No! I have sex with life...with clothes, with beauty."
As someone who also grew up watching Mercado from my family’s living-room couch in Tijuana, Mexico, waiting for him to call out my sign with his trademark dramatic flair (CAN-cerrrr!), I never felt like he was hiding or keeping a secret. I might have not always understood him, and he may have never explained his identity in terms we've been conditioned to understand (straight, gay, male, female, etc.), but it was clear he was operating on an entirely different plane from the rest of the population. And that we needed to catch up.
Constantini told me about a piece of footage the directors unearthed while creating the film. "I think it was from the early 70s, where he says the future is not male or female, the future is somewhere in between—like, gender is a construct," she said. "And it was in the 70s when people weren't really saying that. He was ahead of his time."
Back in November, after Mercado died, I started thinking about his legacy and how it served as a reminder that Latinx culture and identity isn't monolithic: "We come from different countries, speak variations of the same language and/or different indigenous languages, and encompass a kaleidoscope of skin shades and beliefs,” I wrote. “There's a lot we share, and a lot we don't. But Mercado was one of the few figures in pop culture that bonded us all."
Even with the pressures and the prejudice that permeates Latino culture, Mercado was steadfastly and unapologetically himself, and millions of people all over the world loved and believed in him. While he wasn't impervious to ridicule or homophobia, he was still venerated by the most persignada of abuelitas, the most macho of tíos, and the millennial-generation kids and teenagers who were shushed anytime he came on the screen.
Mucho Mucho Amor assures that future generations get to have a piece of Mercado as well, regardless of where they live, how they speak, the color of their skin, who they love, how they identify, or the beliefs they hold. And in his messages of love, strength, and compassion, delivered with an abundance of sheer sparkle, hopefully they can see a reflection of themselves and know they are loved.
"The Latino story gets painted with a very wide brush,” said Constantini. “It's either immigration stories or Narcos, and there's not very much else in the media landscape. But the truth of the matter is, there were figures like Walter who don't fit into any boxes. I feel like we need those stories. We have many facets and Walter had many, many facets himself. There's nobody like Walter. There never will be."
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. You can follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.