We Need Walter Mercado’s Optimism

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The Puerto Rican astrologer’s affirmations brought the Latinx community together and made me, an awkward teenager, feel less alone.

An Op-Ed piece by 

I was transported back to my childhood in Florida when news of the death of Walter Mercado, a beloved Puerto Rican astrologer, swept across the internet on Sunday. Suddenly I could hear my father’s radio alarm clock cutting into the morning silence and the walls of our bedrooms at full volume, jolting the household awake at what felt like an ungodly hour.

I saw myself moving through my morning rituals — brushing my teeth, getting dressed for school, eating breakfast — to the soundtrack of a morning talk show that consisted mostly of two men arguing about Cuban politics, with Mr. Mercado’s horoscope predictions sprinkled between segments.

I’d wait for him to make his way through the zodiac to my sign, Cancer. “Your friends will multiply today, and Mars will ignite your house of passion,” he’d say. I’d pile into my mom’s car with gusto, ready to conquer the world. If you’re Latinx and grew up between the 1970s and ’90s, Mr. Mercado was most likely a fixture in your home, too.

Surely there have been other Latin American astrologers, but none as revered or fabulous. He defied categorization. “He was our Oprah, Mr. Rogers, Liberace and spiritual adviser all rolled into one,” said Cristina Costantini, a co-director of a forthcoming documentary about Mr. Mercado. His was a gentle, decidedly positive brand of astrology. In those days we had only ourselves or the universe to blame for our poor judgment and broken electronics — not Mercury retrograde.

Mr. Mercado was born on March 9, a Pisces. But did his spirit come to earth in Ponce, Puerto Rico, or at sea on a ship that was making its way to the island from Spain? Was he 87 or 88 years old when he died? Did he just happen to fall into astrology because he was at the right place at the right time, or was he born with the gift? The details were not important. What is certain is that this seemingly otherworldly, mystical being emerged from an unlikely place: rural Puerto Rico.

On his call-in show on the Psychic Friends Network, he’d prescribe baths with champagne, red wine, crystals and more to attract luck in love. He’d urge viewers to “saturate yourself in love,” to celebrate and accept yourself just as you are. It was a message I suspect hit home for many an awkward Latinx teenager who, like me, was straddling two worlds desperately trying to figure out how she fit in both. By the ’90s, our family was among the estimated 120 million people a day who’d sit in rapt attention in front of the television when he’d shout out our sign while flapping his cape for extra drama.

Mr. Mercado never identified as gay, but it was the first time we saw someone who defied gender norms on TV. David Gonzalez, a fellow Cuban-American writer and friend, remarked: “I think our families instinctively knew that sexuality is a spectrum. They just didn’t want their kids being the outliers.” A unifying figure, so colorful and flashy, he transcended all the rules the Latinx community ascribed to gender.

We connected with him because his message of hope was a salve for those struggling to find their footing in a foreign country that at times felt inhospitable. Hearing tomorrow was going to be a better day, believe in yourself and be strong no matter what life threw at you reverberated deeply in our community. His death has stirred a collective nostalgia in the Latinx psyche, a longing for the days when our grandmothers, who lovingly watched him along with us, were still around. It feels like now more than ever we need his optimism. We need his voice urging us to keep our heads up, despite how grim things seem.

In the past few years, he had retreated to his home in Puerto Rico with his dog, Runo, and wasn’t as prominent a presence as he once was. But it gave me comfort to see his name pop up on my Facebook feed right before the summer solstice, urging me, a child of the moon, to control my emotions and embrace change. He appears to have left “a trove of horoscopes ready for future publication” to tide us over for now. But I already miss him.

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