In Netflix’s new documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor,” activist Karlo Karlo says, “You wear a cape because you are a superhero. And I see Walter as a superhero.” Of course, the Walter in question is the eponymous astrologer, psychic, and actor Walter Mercado, who passed away in 2019, leaving behind a legacy of over 50 years in TV and the hearts of all Latin Americans.
Throughout the documentary, filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch provide a chronological account of Mercado’s early life in Puerto Rico and his worldwide success through TV clips of his larger-than-life appearances on his own show “Walter y las estrellas,” daytime and nighttime shows, and even telenovelas, and original interviews with the astrologer.
But what “Mucho Mucho Amor” makes clear is that Mercado’s success is also a story about the power of fashion.
Walter Mercado’s style made him an icon, just as much as his persona. His image was built upon androgyny and mysticism in a deeply machista and Catholic society that ran (and still runs) on strict categorizations of gender and religion. Designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Versace jumped at the opportunity to create capes for Mercado. He decorated his message of peace, love, and prosperity in a daze of pearls, glitter, and grandiose accessories. “He’s very much his own creation,” says singer Nydia Caro in the documentary.
By minute-25, Mercado walks the cameras through his house in San Juan swerving his arms in the iconic poses that earned him his popularity on TV. He’s wearing a cape, of course, with big glasses and layered necklaces, as he enters his closet. “For every show, I have a special cape,” he says. “Each one has a story.” The documentary then cuts to wide shots of Mercado’s embroidered and colorful capes on mannequins in various parts of his home, letting the clothes speak for themselves. There’s a light pink cape with feathers, a regal red cape with gold appliques, a deep green cape with pink and green sequins on the shoulders. There’s also the Puerto Rican flag cape he wore to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, which he let Lin-Manuel Mirada try on during their meeting in 2019.
“I am the picture and the cape is my frame,” he says.
The clothes were beautiful, yes, but what’s more astounding about them is that Mercado was able to prosper as an androgynous, gender non-conforming individual because his garments made him look like he wasn’t from this world. Therefore, he didn’t have to adhere to its rules. He could live his masculinity and femininity in equal parameters, constructing his image on his own terms. “When he did all this, it was a scandal,” says one of his nieces in “Mucho Mucho Amor.” “Still, he did it.”
My two grandmothers are both deeply religious women from evangelical legs of Christianity. Both of them are against homosexuality and one of them spent most of her life thinking women shouldn’t wear pants. Yet, both were obsessed with Walter Mercado, respecting both his presence and his message for years. Whenever Mercado was on TV, my abuela Gina would sit to listen to his reading. She’d often dismiss it by the end, but the power of Walter Mercado made an evangelical woman from Caguas, Puerto Rico sit on her couch for at least 5 minutes on a daily basis.
Of course, Walter Mercado’s capes didn’t singlehandedly shed Latin America of its homophobia and toxic masculinity. He faced the harsh realities of living his truth when he was parodied in shows or would be teased for his queerness by TV hosts and comedians. Even Walter Mercado wasn’t exempt from the constructs imposed in our society, but his capes gave everyone the middle finger.
By the end of “Mucho Mucho Amor,” Mercado’s capes and accessories take center stage as he’s celebrated in an exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum in 2019. Mercado’s assistant walks the astrologer through the exhibit as he sits on a wheelchair. (He suffered multiple injuries after falling in his home.) “This is precious,” he says as he looks at the garments in awe, like a kid watching Walter Mercado for the first time on TV.
At 87, Mercado knew his physical life was nearing its end. But, as he admired his legacy, he knew he had become something more than human. Karlo says “superhero.” Walter calls it “a constellation.”
Image courtesy of Netflix.