A report by Tony Sokol for Den of Geek.
The world’s most recognized astrologer Walter Mercado could see the stars were watching. Mucho Mucho Amor filmmakers discuss the dailies.
Walter Mercado gave almost half the world their daily horoscopes, drawing 120 million Latinx viewers to their televisions every evening. Each of the astrologer’s fans got a personal reading which resonated with them, even though they shared their sign’s message with millions of others. Walter didn’t even have to consult his ephemeris. Mucho Mucho Amor, which can be streamed on Netflix, is named after Walter’s signature closing. Co-directed by Cristina Costantini (Science Fair) and Kareem Tabsch (The Last Resort), and produced by Alex Fumero (I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson), it is a loving look at the beloved and revolutionary performer.
Walter was one of the first mainstream androgynous Latin American figures and has become an LGBT icon, the Liberace of astrologers. He was also one of the first astrologers since Jeane Dixon to bring the ancient art to modern audiences. Before Marianne Williamson became one of Oprah Winfrey’s favorite things, Mercado offered a spiritual path inspired by a mix of Santeria, Christianity, Buddhism and the rising New Age movement.
Born on a sugar plantation in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1932, Walter knew he was different before he donned his first cape. He credited his late mother as his spiritual guide, allowing him to read books and study the arts. After a story got around about him breathing life into a dying bird, the people from his town dubbed him “Walter of the miracles.”
Cristina Costantini: No. I think we’re all healthy skeptics. I love astrology. I love learning about astrology, sometimes I attribute my behavior to being a Libra. I’m a bit of a skeptic like I am with every religion as well. I don’t claim to know the answer, but it’s certainly a fun thing to be a part of. It’s a fun culture. And so, I have Co-Star on my phone, which is an astrology app that a lot of millennial youth use, and I read my horoscope sometimes. But I think a lot of Latin culture is like that.
There are a healthy number of skeptics and then a healthy number of people who listen because it might be real. I think that’s how Walter’s audience was. I think so many of us were like, “We don’t know if it’s real, but it sounds good and it looks good, and I hope tomorrow is going to be a better day.” That was so much of what Walter did, tell us that yesterday was hard, and tomorrow is going to be a better day. And for an immigrant community who really needs hope, that message is super important, whether you’re a believer in astrology or not.
Who, if not all, of you grew up watching Walter Mercado?
Kareem Tabsch: All of us. We all had this similar experience, which was really weird. In some cases several years apart, and grew up in different parts of the country, but every afternoon, 5:45, with our grandmothers. We were allowed to run around and be rambunctious. But then they were doing the toss-away “And now with the horoscopes, Walter Mercado.” That was the moment that you were going to shush, or you were going to get a flip-flop upside the head. It was appointment viewing. “Be quiet, listen to Walter Mercado, don’t you dare make me miss the horoscope.” It was four or five minutes which was all his segment lasted. But you could hear a pin drop. Which, growing up with a Latino, anybody that had the power to shut up an entire family, you’ve got to say something about them.
Alex Fumero: I grew up watching him at my grandma’s house getting dropped off after school. I would make a lot of noise, and then he would come on TV and I would get immediately shushed. I just remember having so many questions about him. He looked like a wizard. I wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman. I remember distinctly asking my grandma, it was one of my earliest memories, “Is that a man or a woman?” And her responding, “I’m not sure, but I think it’s a man because he calls himself Walter.” And so, to me as an adult reflecting on that, this is astonishing. My grandmother was not particularly homophobic or machista in her ways, but she was kind of like a simple kind of country person, and that would have been very strange to her. And yet, she was very devoted to him, which stuck with me.
Costantini: We all had the same experience with our grandmothers. I remember watching it with her when she was babysitting us. I remember usually when she was about to cook dinner, and I remember she would pay attention, and my grandpa would always be like, “Who is this on the TV? Who is this charlatan?” But also, they kind of listened. They were like, “I don’t know. I’m going to say the machista thing to say, and then I’m going to actually listen because he might know the secrets. And he looks like he knows the secrets. And so, you have to listen just in case.” That was definitely how we all grew up with him.
Tabsch: He was like an insurance policy. You didn’t know if you were going to use it, but just in case, let’s pay attention to what he had to say.
Do you think Walter breathed life into a bird as a child?
Tabsch: I don’t know. As documentarians we asked ourselves this question in the process of making this film, what is true and what is not? We’re not necessarily believers. I might believe more in Walter Mercado than in Benny Hinn, but that’s because Walter Mercado is my style of guru, if I was going to have one. But at the end of the day, they were his truths. Whether it happened or not, it explains Walter Mercado. It’s either this wonderful flight of fancy, which explains the world that he created, or it was true, and everything he did stemmed from that. If it’s true that Walter is the Puerto Rican Dr. Frankenstein who brought a bird back to life, I’m not going to put my money on that, but he’d been telling that story for 88 years, so I’m going to go with it.
Costantini: I would say, and my Catholic grandmother would absolutely be mortified if she heard me saying this, but do I believe that a man died and then rose and he was the son of God? No. I actually don’t believe that that’s the case. But I also am not sure about Walter’s bringing a bird back to life. And at the end of the day, I think if you’re not introducing hatred into the world, if you’re not introducing division into the world, and people get hope and meaning from your message, then let that message be spread. And so, while I’m not a deep believer in Catholicism, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, I think that whatever it is that helps people love more people is a good thing, and we should promote. And so, whether Walter brought birds back to life or not, to be honest it doesn’t matter that much to me.
The documentary points out that people came to see him as a child to be healed and I’d like to know about the anecdotal evidence. Does it still continue as an oral tradition just among the people? Is his mythology building aside from what television has done?
Fumero: I would say we can only speak to what we witnessed. But I will say that anywhere we went with Walter, people wanted to go up to him, and they wanted to touch him, and they obviously wanted to take a photo with him, or just shake his hands. And he did have this ability to sort of look at you and zero out the rest of the world. So even when we met him for the first time, that was very much our experience. We were the only person there. And Walter was very generous about that. He would in fact act as though he knew the person. He would never say, “Nice to meet you.” He would say, “So good to see you again.” And you would ask him, “Do you know that person?” And he’d be like, “No, I never met that person in my life, but I love them.” I think that that’s the kind of energy that he brought to things, and I think that that is still very much alive. Especially amongst his core devotees, that’s very much alive.
Cristina, you did the film Science Fair. How does the “science fair nerd” explain Walter’s gifts?
Costantini: Science Fair was a world that validated me during the dark years of high school when I needed it most. And I think Walter had a similar effect on my life. He made us feel warm and fuzzy, and gave us hope when we really needed it. Do I believe in the science behind what Walter does? Probably not, but I know that life coaches have an immense effect on people. Psychiatrists have an immense effect on people because of the hope and guidance that they offer. I think Walter is similar in that respect. He was a life coach, and a therapist, and all these things, to a community that really didn’t have that kind of mental health counseling, that didn’t have those kinds of resources. I feel like what he did was super important for our community, even though I might not believe in the science behind the stars. I like to. It’s a beautiful story, and I hope it’s true.
More than being psychically gifted, he had more of a charismatic gift?
Costantini: Exactly. 100%.
I don’t speak Spanish, but I watched El Show de Walter. Not every week, but often. Do you think he had an ability to project the meaning of what he was saying beyond language?
Fumero: Definitely. When Christina called me to say she wanted to make a movie about Walter Mercado, and Kareem and I were already just about to begin making one coincidentally, she told me she had been sitting with the gentleman who edited both our film and Science Fair: Tom Moroni from West Virginia. He is a white gay man, and he loved Walter. And he and his friends in college would get together and watch Walter on TV and had no idea what he was saying. To this day, Tom doesn’t speak Spanish. I think that speaks to Walter’s energy crossing over into other spaces.
The part of the documentary where his ex-manager says, “I have no regrets,” is chilling. In speaking with Bill Bakula, did you get a sense of how he justified that contract?
Costantini: Yeah. I think Bill, in his mind: Walter signed a piece of paper that he should have looked at more carefully if he didn’t want that arrangement. He thinks this was a business deal, and the family got in the way and messed things up. Things were going great if not for the family. It would have continued on. We wouldn’t be here talking about Walter if it were not for Bill. Bill is the person who made Walter a superstar.
So, it’s complicated. He, I think, wanted to be part of this because, in some way, he wanted to memorialize the legacy that was his own as well. He is the person behind Walter that pushed him that far. But it is very complicated and sad. Bill and Walter maintain an immense amount of love and respect for one another, which I think confuses some people. Walter did not want to say anything negative about Bill. He would want to tell you Bill was his angel, and he was a genius, and he was his master. He even says in the film. So it was a tragic parting, but I think of it as a breakup of sorts. These are two people who loved each other at one point, and continued loving each other afterwards even though everything went terribly wrong.
Cinematically, he is perfectly slotted as the villain. He’s the Judas.
Tabsch: Yeah. I think that for us it’s important in making this film was to not inject any additional commentary than what exactly happened, and allow them both to share their truths and their stories as they were. For Bill, it was a very clear black and white problem: We had an agreement, you didn’t follow the agreement, and that’s why things came to an end. We wanted audiences to walk away with that feeling. I think it’s really hard to try to answer all the questions of something that was very, very complicated. And we certainly weren’t trying to villainize or exonerate anyone.
At the same time, Walter got involved in things knowingly that I think he regretted. He talked about that with the 900 numbers. But certainly the fact that Bill was a key and crucial figure in maybe the darkest moment in Walter’s life, that is undeniable, whether he’s the villain or a really savvy businessman. We all want the viewer to come away with making that decision. There are some people who’ve also said how brilliant he was in making Walter a superstar.
Fumero: Just to add from a cinematic perspective, from a storytelling perspective, we were very conscious of the trope of the manager who abuses the client. So when going into it, we wanted to be cautious of tipping our hat too early to this, because then the audience’s focus rather than be on the story, or rather than listen to Bill’s. Bill is one of the experts on Walter. So in a way, if you lean in from the beginning into, this guy is the bad guy, the audience is going to dismiss everything he says.
I think that we also, not just because there is a turn, and yes that turn is dramatic, but also because from a storytelling device, it makes more sense to allow this person to lead you along. He’s one of the only people who can really from a documentary perspective. And then yes, we have to pull the rug out. The rug was also pulled out from under Walter in the same way. So I think all of that, I think we wanted art to mirror life in that kind of way.
In the documentary, Walter says he would never retire. Had he recovered, where do you think he would have put his efforts?
Costantini: He always had a million projects. He was working on a book he was hoping to finish. He was working on a tarot deck, which maybe we’ll help the family finish. We discussed him doing a movie with an actor, a narrative film. I remember we asked him who he would want to play him, and I suggested Gael Garcia Bernal, and he said, “Oh no, too old.” And then we said, “Who would you have play you?” And he said, “Who’s that boy from Call Me By Your Name?” And we’re like, “Timothée Chalamet?” And he was like, “Yeah. This would be a good opportunity for him.” I love that. The age thing is funny, but I just love that line, that this would be a good opportunity for Timothée Chalamet, the superstar. Very cute.
Many people know nothing about Walter’s dancing and acting. Can you tell me how that career change happened, and how it was a related performance?
Tabsch: I think it certainly influenced what we saw a great deal. He talked about it a bit in the film, that training as an actor. And Walter was a ham as an actor. You see a little bit of the telenovela. He chewed the scenery when he was on the screen. So he had this larger than life performance for everything. It was never la puerta. It was “La puerta!” And a lot of biting of his fists. And the dancing, particularly the flamenco and the ballet, I think it’s really evident when you watch him. I don’t think we knew the extent of it when we first met him.
When you realize he had been doing that for 15 to 20 years before he becomes Walter the astrologer, it all makes perfect sense. You almost can never look at the astrology the same way because you see the movement instead of his hand and his face, you see his diction and his delivery very, very clearly. And the fact that it was kind of accidental is just great. He was doing a show, a theater piece, and he was in the studio to promo something else, and the host had a guest that canceled, and said, “Walter, you always talk about astrology when we’re hanging out. Just talk about astrology now.” And then he did it off the cuff. You think about that, it makes perfect sense that he was able to use all of that training into this interest he had, and that that helped propel him.
You can’t talk about Walter without talking about the capes and the jewelry. How did the dance and acting influence that part of his presentation?
Costantini: Yeah, his jewelry was incredible, and so were his capes. We joked that the reason we made the documentary was so we could try on his capes. We tried on his capes every single chance we got. First we did it secretly. We would sneak, he would have been trying on some capes for a shoot, and then we would put them on after he had them on and just take pictures. Then we realized he also got a great amount of joy in seeing other people in his capes. Then every time we went to his house, we’d try them on and take pictures. We even got to wear them at the Sundance premiere.
How did Lin-Manuel Miranda come into the project?
Fumero: We knew Lin-Manuel was a huge fan of Walter’s because he tweeted about it various times. And we knew Walter was a Lin-Manuel fan because he said so on his own. I happened to have a mutual friend who is in a group with Lin called Freestyle Love Supreme. So I asked him “Look, Lin is going to Puerto Rico for Hamilton. Walter has said that he would like to meet Lin. He’s too old to go to the show itself, but he would like to meet him in some way.” I said, “Just send him a text saying, ‘Walter Mercado wants to meet you.’” And Lin was like, “I’ve turned down every press opportunity related to Hamilton in Puerto Rico, except to meet Walter Mercado.”
When you first went into the project, did you know you were going to find him? Would this have been made if he didn’t find him?
Costantini: I don’t think we would have made that documentary honestly without his involvement. It hinged on being able to have access to him and to his records, and his archives. I don’t think you have the story without seeing what he’s gone through. I would love for him to be memorialized in any way possible. I’m just not sure that we could have.
Did he see what you were doing as his comeback?
Tabsch: That’s complicated in a sense, because if you ask Walter, he would say that he never left.
Fumero: Yeah, don’t call it a comeback. He’s been here for years.
Tabsch: It’s complicated. We talked about cinematic influences. Immediately Cristina and I both said, “Sunset Boulevard and Grey Gardens.” They were very true to form. Walter had been cloistered in his house in Puerto Rico for a decade. He would do things, but very, very small. Nowhere near in scale to what he’d done before. But as far as he was concerned, he was still a star. He used to describe it as, “I’m just taking a little break.” The break had lasted over 10 plus years. So that’s why when we asked him in the film, “Are you in semi-retirement?” He’s incredulous at the thought that he would ever retire. I don’t think he’d ever characterize it as that.
Tabsch: In making the film, that’s what we thought it was going to be. I thought we were going to be following his return to the limelight, that great comeback. And projects change. It ultimately ended up being his great swan song. But I think we all take a lot of solace in the fact that we were able to be with him as he had that final adoration, to send him off. That event in Miami was really meaningful for him, and I think you could see how meaningful it was for everybody who met him too.