Walter Mercado was the ultimate crossover. He was a truly universal figure, and had millions of followers eons before the era of Instagram and Tik-Tok. Long before Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” was playing on mainstream radio in the US, Walter had extended his conquest beyond Latin America, appearing on talk shows like Good Morning America, and launching a 1-900 psychic hotline.
“I think that the Walter we saw on television is the only Walter that existed … He was naturally larger than life.”Co-director Kareem Tabsch
On television sets from Chile to Honduras to Miami, his zodiac sign by zodiac sign horoscope elicited a moment of suspension from the grind of daily life, reaching over 120M intergenerational viewers during his 30 years on television. For a moment, one could get a reprieve from the unrest and natural disasters on the news and receive Walter’s blessing to believe in something more pure.
In the fantastic new Netflix original Walter Mercado documentary Mucho, Mucho Amor (1h36m), co-directors Cristina Kostantini and Kareem Tabsch pulled back the curtains on Walter’s life and legacy, from his roots as a country boy growing up near sugar cane fields in Puerto Rico, to his burgeoning career as a dancer and soap opera actor, to the lucky break that catapulted him to a household name in Latin America, thanks to his astrology segment on Univisión.
Walter was characterized both by his outrageous persona clad in costumes and capes, and by the unequivocal message of love that he spread. I asked Kareem whether the veil ever dropped on the character that Walter told us that he set out to “fabricate” in his twenties. Kareem shared that while the team went into the film process envisioning that there would be a “stage Walter” and a “real Walter,” perhaps over the years, the two had melded into one: “I think that the Walter we saw on television is the only Walter that existed,” said Kareem. “He was naturally larger than life.”
Just one day after the co-directors submitted an early cut of the film to the Sundance Film Festival, Walter passed away…
At a time when comparably universal figures might have been Julio Iglesias or Pelé, Walter reached similar heights as an antidote to the male tropes of the time, with his ambiguous sexuality and his non-binary, gender-bending presentation, so progressive for the time that he gallantly defied machisimo and all logical obstacles.
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Walter’s true mystery was the paradox between his vanity —his over-the-top look-at-me androgenous image— and his unwaveringly selfless message of peace and love, a juxtaposition that the film captures well. Believe in yourself, he would tell us, and the world would be ours. His message of love and forgiveness, no matter the transgressions or obstacles, is one that resonates today, as people seek a unifying force of hope like the one that Walter, literally, embodied.
Walter had a faithful entourage of nieces, and a decades-loyal assistant, Willy Acosta, reminiscent of Sancho Panza, who quietly enabled Walter’s every whim. Willy is a silent hero in the film, an antithesis to the villain, Guillermo “Bill” Bakula, who, as Walter’s manager, was singly responsible for exponentially growing Walter’s image and presence throughout the Americas and in the US, but who then deceived him, controlling his image and swindling him out of millions of dollars in a high-profile years-long court case. Nonetheless, Walter eventually persisted.
The film misses telling us how Walter ultimately chose to focus on astrology —how was he trained, what exactly did he tell all of these high-profile characters in those readings?— but perhaps that adds to the mystery: Was Walter indeed endowed with some divine gift? Or was it that he gave us permission to realize our own potential? The one sure thing is that he never strayed from his message of positivity, ending every show with his signature, “Reciban de mí paz, siempre mucha paz, y mucho, mucho amor.”
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In a fitting end to his magnificent, unique career, in late 2018 the directors captured Walter attending a 50-year celebration of his life, at the HistoryMiami Museum. One week before the exhibition opening, Walter fell out of bed, suffering several fractions; yet he bared down and endured an hours-long photo shoot involving many costume changes with capes weighing up to fifteen pounds — the price of vanity (and the value of a great photographer). Three months after the Museum opening, and just one day after the co-directors submitted an early cut of the film to the Sundance Film Festival, Walter passed away, having sealed his legacy in the image that he wanted people to remember.
In this exclusive video interview with Startup Cuba, co-director Kareem Tabsch and executive producer Alex Fumero spoke to us about the experience of filming the documentary, incorporating magical realism into the flow, and whether or not Walter really was magical.