Growing up, there was one person in my family who was omnipresent and immortal: the great Walter Mercado. Mercado was a Puerto Rican astrologer who became famous for his segment on Spanish television, Walter Las Estrellas Y Usted. During the segment, Mercado would appear with a perfect golden head of hair and an extraordinary robe and go sign by sign delivering astrological information. He would sign off wishing for each sign the exact same thing: “Mucho mucho amor,” which translates to a lot of love.
In November of 2019, Mercado died of kidney failure at 88 years old. It was an announcement that broke the heart of millions of Mercado’s fans across the States, Caribbean, and Latin America. In the last years of his life, Mercado was introduced to filmmakers Cristina Costantini, Kareem Tabsch, and producer Alex Fumero, who all set out to make a documentary about Mercado’s life and to introduce him to the next generation that wouldn’t get to experience the wonder of growing up with Mercado’s voice in their homes.
Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch sat down with Jezebel to discuss the project and the wonderful magical being that was Walter Mercado. The following interview, which has been condensed, contains spoilers for the Netflix documentary Mucho Mucho Amor.
Jezebel: How did Walter first find his way into your lives? I know with me, it was watching TV with my grandma and I wanted her to change the channel, but she couldn’t because Walter was speaking.
Cristina Costantini: The film is actually dedicated to our abuelitas and all the abuelitas around the world. We hope the film will make people call their grandmothers if nothing else. But that’s exactly it for us. I think Walter kind of embodies those very nostalgic moments that we had as kids growing up watching TV with our grandmothers and grandfathers and our entire families. And so for us, we have the kind of warm fuzzies that other people describe about Mr. Rogers. We never remember a time when he wasn’t there.
Lin-Manuel is in the movie, and he kind of describes this very prototypical Latinx kind of experience of being shushed by your grandmother. Everyone has to be quiet. And this, like magical genie appears on the television, in extravagant capes and amazing rings and incredible hair. And you couldn’t help, but you had to pay attention. He just commanded this kind of respect. And I think as adults, we started thinking about how peculiar and unique that phenomenon was that he was, you know, genderqueer or gender nonconforming in a super machisto culture. And yet he was able to command this respect. As he would say, he was living 100 years ahead of his time. So, you know, there are a lot of reasons that we were curious about Walter. But, yeah, two and a half years ago, the three of us all set out independently to try to make a film about Walter. And basically through that process, found each other.
Kareem Tabsch: I mean, to say when he came in would imply that there is a moment that I remember without Walter in my life. And there isn’t; he was kind of this constant presence that was always there. It’s like you don’t remember when you meet your siblings if you’re around the same age because they’re always around. You don’t remember when you meet your parents. They’ve always been there and Walter was always there. As filmmakers, we remembered him so vividly that when you encounter someone like Walter, you don’t ever forget that, particularly when it’s at a young and impressionable age. It really was like meeting a magician or a weird alien from a different planet that everybody loved. Growing up Latino, the power of anyone who’s able to shut up an entire Latino family like that is something to say. It was like a miracle. But then as adults and as filmmakers, we wondered what happened to him. It feels like just kind of the same way in that he was always there—all of a sudden he wasn’t there. And so we wanted to kind of find out where did the wizard go? And in the film, it’s not a whodunit, where is he now. You see, Walter from the very beginning, but it is kind of telling the story of his unlikely rise to fame and his sudden disappearance and his reemergence.
How would you describe Walter and his cultural impact to someone who’s never heard of him before?
Costantini: I would like to say that he’s like Mr. Rogers. Plus Oprah, but dressed as Liberace with a little bit of Big Bird. I think that’s the best way to describe him. He’s like magical and mystical. But you also have this, like, childhood nostalgia wrapped up in him. He makes you feel as though tomorrow is gonna be a better day and you all you have to do is have hope and faith and work hard.
But there’s no one like Walter. He’s said he’s one of a kind. So it has been the challenge of getting this film made, explaining who Walter is to people who didn’t grow up with him. Because, you know, most of Hollywood, most of the film industry is run by people who didn’t grow up with Walter. So so we had a very tough task of trying to translate this unique species that we were blessed to have had in our lives to people who don’t know him.
Tabsch: We knew that as Latinos. We had a fan base for whom he was such a significant cultural touchstone. But you don’t know how that translates outside of our culture. So seeing non Latinos get excited about him—we played True/False in the middle of Missouri. So amazing film festival. But, you know, I mean, white as it comes. And it was great to see a primarily white audience fall in love with him. He’s a great bridge culturally for more understanding and appreciation.
Did Walter truly believe in astrology fully or was it just something he did for television?
Costantini: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that’s what’s interesting about Walter, he melded astrology into a very Catholic culture and also brought in a lot of other religions. He was always talking about Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam and used always trying to teach, which I think went over my head as a kid. But now I’m watching his stuff back. He was constantly teaching us about the world and teaching us about different religions and teaching us about love and different cultures. So he was a deep believer in astrology. He read our charts.
Tabsch: We didn’t ask him to because we had kind of early on said, like, we don’t want to, you know, that’s a weird dynamic. So he actually quite naturally did it and unexpectedly and he didn’t make a thing of it. I think we have a video of one another’s charts being read. And we have the charts that he then dedicated to us. But one of the interesting things he says in the film is that he was a very deep believer in astrology, but he’s a deep believer in everything.
He really was a smart, educated, well-read, endlessly curious person. So his personal belief system and what he really kind of promoted and presented to us is a melange borrowing from the best of all of the kind of major religions and belief systems and kind of mixed them up in his own little, you know, cauldron. And so when you’re in his house, you would see la Virgen De La Caridad or Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and you’d see Ganesh, and you would see Buddhist prayer beads. There’s a point where he described the point of conversions of interfaith religion, where everything came together to say, you know, love. Love each other and live your life with love. And that was his message. He never shook off Christianity completely. But it was one of many paths to an ultimate truth.
Did he lean more towards Christianity than the other faiths?
Costantini: Yeah, he would say Catholic, but he would also say, “And everything else.” But I think if you made him choose one, he would say he was a Catholic.
I feel like every Latinx person is born Catholic and then something happens.
Tabsch: They spend their lifetime trying to escape it.
Exactly. So how did he navigate being so immersed in our culture that is super religious, super Catholic? How did he navigate and come up through that to be the world’s most renowned astrologer?
Costantini: Very carefully. Walter was brilliant, and I don’t think I understood quite how brilliant. I don’t think any of us understood quite how brilliant he was until we were with him. But I believe that his whole persona, the capes, the hair, the jewelry that was, you know—he wasn’t allowed to be gay. He wasn’t allowed to be gender-nonconforming at that time. So becoming magical, becoming a wizard, is what allowed him to be himself in a radical way and be loved for it, which he really did care about being loved. And so I think there’s a lot of genius to what he did in the way that he navigated issues of sexuality and gender. He was at once very radical. Just looking like he looked on television every day was a radical act. Yet he never talked about his sexuality in a way that got a lot of [other] people fired. He had to kind of thread this needle of being a queer icon and radically himself. Karlo Karlo says in the film, “It goes beyond coming out.” Yet he never said it, not even to us and we asked him a hundred ways, a million different times. Kareem in particular really pushed him and he was very, very careful with his words.
Tabsch: We talk a lot about how media-savvy Walter was. He had a television career just as an astrologer that was 50 years. And then he was on TV as a telenovela actor and as a dancer for 15 years or so or 20 years before that. So he was very well-rehearsed. He had answers that he’d been using for a long time, and he knew how to evade the question. And I think that it was the same tactic that he used to kind of navigate being himself. It was his charm and his wit and the fact that he was talking about things that were esoteric and different. Nobody was talking about these things, they were never in the mainstream. He talked about Indian deities or indigenous religions or astrology and the stars.
So he was talking about something that a lot of people didn’t really know about. He was dressing in a way that nobody had ever seen anyone dressed before. Male or female for that matter. It blended and blurred the lines. What was a very strict predetermined look of a man dresses this way, a woman dresses this way, etc. He was able to take all of that and throw it out the window and ignore it because he was this magical, otherworldly being. He certainly got some pushback. But he got a pass because like, oh, Walter is not of this earth. He’s not like a normal person. He’s so different. And this must be what different people look like and how they live. And it was you know, it was the most interesting, subversive, radical way that he could kind of pierce through the machismo, pierce through the heteronormativity, and the Catholicism, and the oppressiveness that is often associated with the machisto Carribeño culture that we grew up with. He was who he was never asked for an apology, never explained it and you were forced to reckon with it. I can’t really think of another figure who’s ever done that in that way.
Where did the capes come from? Because I know you guys say he created this persona that was magical and had an otherworldly look, but why the capes which, to me at least, were his signature thing.
Cristina: So he was on television promoting a play that he was in, and I think the guest for that evening didn’t show up and he was dressed in costume from that play. He was dressed as a Hindu prince and he had a white robe covered in gems. The producer said, “Walter, you love astrology, right? Why don’t you just start reading people’s signs?” It just starts flowing from him naturally. This was an obsession of his and so it just emerged from him. So the Telemundo producer said, “You have to do this again tomorrow for 15 minutes; we need you in your cape.” And I think everybody realized immediately that they had struck on something very special. That was the start of his show, Walter Las Estrellas Y Usted and he’s been reading stars ever since. But the robes are, you know, religious figures also wear robes. The priest or the pope, rather, wears a robe. So he’s taking something that looks familiar to his public and just jazzing it up a lot. So it really is all very considered. All the choices he made, which can seem silly, are brilliant.
What was it like, you know, you had this idea to make a documentary about him and you guys were separate and then came together on it. What was it like when you finally all got Walter in front of you?
Tabsch: It was crazy on so many different levels. Cristina and I didn’t know each other. We met for the first time in person the night before we met Walter. And then we went to Walter’s house with our producer, Alex Fumero who put us all together. Walter’s house is like clearly Walter’s house. It’s in this middle-class neighborhood that probably saw better days in the ’80s on the outskirts of San Juan where you look and it’s like some yellow and blue Moroccan villa among mid-century-ish track homes. And you’re like, okay, I’m in for something. We went inside, met his nieces, met his assistant, and his secretary. They were all very lovely and they brought us upstairs to one of Walter’s sitting areas. His house is like the Vanderbilt estate in Puerto Rico at a 20th of the scale and one-hundredth of the cost. It’s a weird space. And we were kept waiting for 45 minutes for Walter. His living room is sunken in; it’s about three floors down from the rest of his house. So all of a sudden you hear his husky yet feminine voice and he was just there dressed in head-to-toe white linen with his gorgeous gold mane of hair and his YSL glasses and he’s standing on the steps, so about three feet above us. It was like an apparition, just like what the fuck is going on? I remember that moment so vividly. It was probably the simplest we’ve ever seen him dressed. It was like he walked out of the television and was in front of us.
Costantini: Walter loved himself, which you’ll see in the film. He has pictures of himself all over his house. He loves talking about himself, but he really loves other people even more. Which I think is what makes him so endearing in his life. He is committed to making other people feel good. And when you’re in a room with him, he commits all of his energy to making everybody else in the room feel welcome and worthwhile and loved. And I just remember the first time we met him and he held our hands and looked deep into our eyes and it really felt like a religious experience.
Did he ever explain why he felt astrology was his calling or how he became so proficient at it?
Costantini: He grew up in rural Ponce in the sugarcane fields. His father was an overseer of a farm. And he would always say, “My brothers and my dad were obsessed with the mud. They just wanted to plant. And I was always looking to the stars.” He was obsessed with the stars as a child. I’m sure there were not very many lights at night in rural Ponce, so I imagine that he spent a lot of time as a kid looking at them and learning about them. I also think it’s like religion? It was his medium for him to communicate this message of love that was all-consuming.
Tabsch: We talk about kind of his origin story the moment where, as he describes it, the moment he knew he was magical, in the movie. But he really always also just described himself as being different from a young age and whether that meant different in being queer or different meant being interested in other things or with these special gifts. Or whether all of that was part of his way of navigating being maybe a queer person in rural Puerto Rico in the ’30s or ’40s. It seemed to be something that he naturally was drawn to. He was a fervent believer in it. It’s so innate to him and we meet him at the end of his life and at that point, he had spent 88 years really just being endlessly curious and endlessly studying. While astrology is a thing that we really know him for and he’s most closely associated with, he really did just look to all kinds of different belief systems. Buddhism was really important to him because of the theory that there’s many different paths that one could take that all lead to the same place. I don’t know that we ever figured out exactly why it was and because Cristina and I are skeptics, I don’t know that we would have gotten an answer that we would’ve been happy with anyways. But at the end of the day, it was his way of dealing with the world and finding purpose in the world.
What were some of the hardest parts about getting this project out and getting it distributed?
Costantini: I would say two things: I think, first of all, nobody who we were pitching to, as I said before, nobody really understood who Walter was. It was just based on our pushing alone and our pitching alone to try to get people to care about this figure. It’s gotten a lot easier as Latinos come out of the woodwork to be excited about the documentary. But I think what really made the difference was having Latino execs in positions of power. It was ultimately a Mexican executive at Netflix who was like, “We gotta do this.” Also, Lin-Manuel [Miranda] met Walter and we filmed it. And I think that footage sold the film, too. But we were really building the runway as the plane was taking off for this project. We had no money as we went into production. I think the other hardest part was that Walter’s health was failing him as we were filming. And so we discussed it a lot and decided, too, that we couldn’t wait for the money to all come in before we got into the field and were shooting. Thank God we did it how we did it. I mean, people were not getting paid. We all deferred payment for, what, a year and a half? I’m glad we did it because it worked out. That was really hard when there was no money and no support and Walter’s health was failing him.
Tabsch: It was a challenge beginning to end. It was also a challenge to get somebody like Walter, who had spent all of his time in front of the camera in a very particular way. Walter filmed his [astrology] segments in his home for the majority of his career. Walter had a very well-guarded and well-crafted image that he projected. So it was very kind of forward-facing getting somebody who’s like that to allow you to go behind the camera, behind the capes, behind the layers of makeup. Part of it was building trust, luring him out.
The other thing that was really challenging is that we went in to make a film which we thought was about his return to the limelight. In reality, it was his swan song. You know, it was his final goodbye. We submitted the cut of the film to Sundance on November 1. Walter died on November 2. We went to Puerto Rico for the funeral. We were there all week. Our producer, Alex [Fumero] and I were pallbearers at the funeral. Then we heard that we got into Sundance, and then we had to rush to finish the film. Then we went to Sundance and the family came for the premiere. So I think that part of getting it out there was thrilling. We were so excited that it was a way of kind of paying homage to Walter. But we were also super emotional. We became so close, we loved him so dearly. He’s a stand-in for our grandparents. That brings up memories and it brings up feelings so it was complicated. It’s been complicated. But we focus on the fact that, gosh, how lucky can you be to be the three of us to make this movie about somebody who we adored and to give him the proper tribute and place in our culture, in history that he deserves.
What was Walter’s relationship with his fame?
Costantini: He loved it. He constantly wanted more. That was what maybe blinded him to some of the things that were coming down the road, which—I don’t want to spoil the movie, but he loved people loving him. He couldn’t get enough of it; being out in public, being in front of the cameras and the lights just gave him energy. I mean, we saw it happen in real life as his health was failing him when we were taking him out into the world more; and every moment he would be like, you know, hunched over in pain, he then would be brought back to life by seeing his fans and people, giving him hugs and kisses. So he really loved fame. He always wanted to be famous. He knew at a very young age he had to invent a famous person inside himself. And so that’s exactly what he did. For him, the ultimate success was the crossover. He really wanted to nail the crossover, which he never, in my opinion, fully did. You know, he was on Howard Stern and he was on Sally Jessy Raphael. But that was a moment in time. It’s not as though all my white friends know who he is, you know. So he never really did that. And I hope in a small way that this film might help him get closer to the legacy that he really wanted.
Do you think that desire for fame was sort of a placeholder to be accepted as a gender nonconforming person?
Tabsch: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. I mean, you can imagine how hard it must have been to be so different to grow up in a very small country, a very young country also at that point, in a rural place and feeling so different inside from everyone and everything around you. He did tell us that, you know, he created this. He knew he had something inside himself that had to come out or it was gonna explode. And he created this famous persona. So it definitely was kind of a coping mechanism of sorts.
He was such a forward-thinking person. I mean, he kept wanting to do more. He always thought about the next new project and the next big thing, even towards the end of it. Even at the end of his life, he was talking about in six months, I’m going to do this in Columbia. That drive, I think, was always what kind of kept him going. That energy, that desire is really kind of what always fueled his life. It certainly took him down some wrong paths, and we talk about that in the movie as well. But ultimately it was this vehicle for him.
Walter’s fame is associated with his message. And that was one of love and peace and acceptance. And I think that’s what ultimately is going to live on. That kind of fame solidifies you as an icon as opposed to just kind of, you know, fleeting fame. So he’ll always be famous because it was based on true, good, lovely things.
Mucho Mucho Amor is currently streaming on Netflix.