'Mucho Mucho Amor' Documentarians on Capturing Walter Mercado's "Message of Love"

Walter Mercado - Mucho Mucho Amor still 2 - H 2020

Filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, along with producer Alex Fumero, detail filming the gender non-conforming astrologer, who after decades of global love vanished from the public eye.

Puerto Rican astrologist Walter Mercado, who died last year on Nov. 2, is one of the most recognizable figures in Latinx culture — for his horoscope breakdowns, his bedazzled capes, and above all, his unwavering positivity.

The beloved astrologer dazzled his audience from his early days on Primer Impacto — a Spanish-language news program on Univision — to his inevitable global reach, entertaining millions of viewers with his insight into the stars as well as their lives. However, after decades of fame and adoring attention from fans, Mercado's boisterous persona suddenly vanished in 2010.

That disappearance, as well as answers as to why so many fell in love with his personality to begin with, are the focus of Mucho Much Amor, a documentary by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch. The two, along with producer Alex Fumero, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the inspiration to tell Mercado's story, from his early days in rural Puerto Rico to becoming a Latinx genderqueer icon, as well as the fascinating journey to find the man, the myth, the legend himself and gain his trust to tell his extravagant story.

Much Mucho Amor is currently streaming on Netflix.

What are your early memories of Walter Mercado? Did all of you watch him growing up?

CRISTINA CONSTANTINI Walter was part of our childhood. I think we all don't remember a time when Walter didn't exist. Our memories of being at our grandmother's houses, memories of our childhood are intimately tied to Walter. When we think about Walter, we think of these moments when we were on the couch with our grandmothers, sitting on fake linoleum floors in their houses. It's really synonymous with the love that we have for our grandmothers and grandfathers and our families, and our childhood generally. The closest that we compare it for non-Latino people is like a Mr. Rogers character or Oprah, but he's dressed like Liberace.

ALEX FUMERO Yeah. I would say that Latino kids have a very common story. You could not make a sound when this man was on TV. There could be bedlam going on during the news program. But as soon as it turns to the astrological forecast, it was like you could hear a pin drop and everyone needed to focus on Walter.

KAREEM TABSCH That shared experiences is really kind of what brought us together to make the film. The fact that we were all in different places and times. I grew up in Miami, and so did Alex, and Cristina grew up in Wisconsin. The fact that we had the exact same experiences in different places just kind of resonated through all of us and brought us together to make the film. 

How did you all connect and the project initially begin?

FUMERO The project came together somewhat cosmically. The three of us actually had interest in doing a project on Walter for a long time. I met Kareem at the time Walter was having an estate sale in Miami where he was selling a bunch of capes, which in Miami is a big deal because Walter was a big presence. I asked Kareem, 'How has no one done a documentary about Walter Mercado?' I would love to do that. I dig Kareem's movies obviously and he deals with archival information in terrific ways. I said to him, 'You should do that.' He's like, 'Well, I'm going to try to buy a cape, but I'm also going to try to see if I can make contact with the family.' He makes contact with one of Walter's nieces and texts me and says, 'Let's set up a time to discuss.' So we do that. And about 30 minutes before that call is set, Cristina called me and says, 'Hey, I hear from some mutual friends that you're obsessed with Walter Mercado. I want to make a movie about it.' I was like, 'This is very weird because I have a call in 30 minutes with another director. But like you have one style, he has another. But this feels very Walter-y, cosmically designed so maybe we should do it together.' And the rest is history.

The documentary shows Walter's strong connection with millennials as well as adoration for him by the Latinx community while being gender nonconforming. In your time researching him, being with him as well as speaking to family, friends and fans — why do you think he was embraced so passionately by these two groups?

CONSTANTINI He was a hundred years ahead of his time. We found archival footage of him from the '70s and what he was saying was the future is not going to be male and female. The future is going to be something in the middle. Gender is a construct. He was obviously a big fan of astrology. He was very into interfaith religion and learned everything there is to know about religions from around the world. I think he was teaching us these things from a very young age way ahead of his time. I think for millennials, these are all conversations that we're having right now. All of my friends are obsessed with astrology. All of my friends, we talk about gender politics in this way that Walter has been talking about it for decades. Also, he's just so visually fascinating and so fun to look at. Nowadays, you see Bad Bunny during the Super Bowl wearing a rhinestone cape and celebrated for it. Walter was doing it when nobody else was doing it.

TABSCH I think in part it was because Walter was so otherworldly. He was coming into our home and talking about astrology and horoscopes and different belief systems, blending it all together. He looked so different that he was almost not of this world. Someone so alien to us, of indeterminate gender, he kind of got a pass. I also think the fact that his message was so positive and so inspiring. And the fact that despite him being gender nonconforming in his appearance, he didn't in a personal way, talk about sex or sexuality. So it was kind of this weird dichotomy — it was fine as long as he didn't talk about it. We see that with another queer Latino icon, Juan Gabriel, who also was hugely famous and, for all intents and purposes, considered queer, but never really spoke about it in outward ways. So Walter kind of got this pass from our family because he was bringing this positive message and he would be theatrical about it. He was unabashedly himself and in a way that no one else had ever done that. Now it's not to say he was above being ridiculed or being the butt of jokes. Because that very much did happen. But he was so beloved because I think his message was so positive.

How did those early conversations go in terms of connecting with Walter and him agreeing to the project?

CONSTANTINI So Kareem tracked down Walter's niece at his estate sale and that's how we got in touch with him. We arranged a phone call that we were all really nervous for because none of this will work if Walter says no. We practiced for a long time. We wrote out some kind of questions and how he might respond to them and how we should answer them. When we got on the phone, his very first question was, he said 'I'm interested in this great project. But what are your astrological signs?' Based on that conversation, [Walter and his family] agreed to let us come to Puerto Rico, and to continue talking about the project. Even after they agreed to the product, they didn't quite understand what a documentary was. We would be filming with Walter and he would say, 'Okay!' and 'Action!' Then proceed to pretend to eat breakfast or read a book or whatever it was. Normally in a documentary, you say 'What would you be doing if I wasn't here? Do you mind if I just hang out while you do that?' But he hasn't been in front of camera for years. He wanted everything to be a scene and would always say, 'Why would you want to film me watching TV, this is going to be so boring.'

How did you gain his trust for him to speak about his life so openly? Were there certain topics that were difficult or challenging for him to discuss?

TABSCH Interestingly enough, probably one of the most difficult things for him to talk about were his legal woes. I mean, there were subjects he did not like discussing. He did not like discussing his age. He'd always say he was between 60 and death. He did not like discussing what, if any, plastic surgery he had. He definitely didn't like dwelling on his sexuality. I think that actually the most difficult thing to get him to answer was talking about kind of the darker moments in his life, particularly around his legal battles. That was a sore subject because he was a person who was relentlessly positive. He did not dwell on the negative. I think it was a really painful part of his life. The remarkable thing is that he still kind only had positive words about his former business manager [Bill Bakula]. So, we did have to kind of rely on the family to help him get him to open up a little more about that.

FUMERO He didn't like to dwell on suffering. I mean, for example, the only time he ever sort of copped to suffering was when we brought up that his family greatly suffered through that process with Bill. Right. Once we said that, then he was like, 'Okay, yes, I suffered.'

How did you take the news of Mercado’s death — since you are both fans of his and also filmmakers who focused on his life and work?

CONSTANTINI I think for all of us, when we started the project, he was the icon from our childhood. We also weren't sure if we were going to like him. We loved his persona on television, but you know, we didn't know what he was like as a real person. Over the course of those two years, we became very close to him and the more that he let us in, the closer that we got. He kind of became like a weird uncle or very fabulous uncle and we loved him dearly. When we got the news, it was very difficult. It was during a time when it was very much a roller coaster of emotions for all of us. We submitted the film on November 1, and then we got the news he passed away November 2. We got accepted to Sundance a couple of weeks later. Then we went down for the funeral. Kareem and Alex were pallbearers in that funeral. We spent three days straight with the family, with, with Walter in the coffin, and it was a very, very emotional time. Then we got to Sundance and it was really special being there. The family came for that and it felt like it was still a process of mourning. Being there was amazing. Being there without Walter, which was ultimately our goal, was also terrible although we felt he was with us in a certain way.

TABSCH The important part to think about too is we did this project, the first year and a half of this project, with practically no budget. I mean we had a small $10,000 grant from ArtesMiami [a nonprofit that supports arts in the city]. Everybody deferred payments. And we, you know, we worked things out with friends and we were all living on savings in order to make the film. We had to make a decision at some point like do we wait until we're funded or do we just kind of make it with tinfoil and bubblegum. We went that route because we were so dedicated to the idea that we were going to finish this within Walter's lifetime and be able to premiere it with Walter there and help usher in a new era for him of recognition.

How difficult was it getting this project taken seriously?

TABSCH It was really difficult. A lot of that has to do with the fact that this is a Latino icon and we were Latino filmmakers. When we were talking to folks, they didn't get that. Particularly white executives in Hollywood are just like 'Crossover movies don't work. Nobody knew who this guy is,' regardless of us showing data that about 120 million people a day were watching Walter. It's just going to speak to the importance of having Latinos and people of color in positions of power that are going to champion our stories. That's the only way that happens. [This documentary] very nearly didn't happen.

FUMERO I don't want to go on one of these like Latino tirades, but the fact remains that this is such an obvious slam dunk. We're not coming to the table with like, 'Oh, there's this guy who is amazing, but you've never really heard of him.' This is a guy who reached 120 million people on a daily basis.

To be honest, it's surprising a documentary about Mercado exists only now and wasn't done before.

FUMERO The answer to that is, honestly, the people who were kind of naysayers about it were, I hate to phrase it this way, but it's like, they were pure capitalists. They were actually agents and the business execs. The COOs and CEOs of certain companies, right? Like creative execs, to their credit, I think many of them were interested. When it came down to bottom line financials, these folks couldn't wrap their head around it because it wasn't obvious. I think among all of these calls for Black Lives Matter and all of these folks to put your money where your mouth is — what that means essentially is you actually have to do work. You have to do a bit of work on your own to figure out how you're going to sell something. It's so obvious that they're lazy and not doing their jobs when you bring them one of the biggest icons in the history of the Latin world and they tell you crossover films don't work… What they're used to is very clear spreadsheets in front of them where they can just collect profits off of that. That's where the social justice movements are finally getting through. I'm like, stop making us beg for commercially viable ideas. This is ludicrous. We're playing your game and you're still too lazy to see it.

CONSTANTINI There was one instance where executives made us go try to find data on just how many people watched Walter. This is like data from the '70s and all Latin American stations. I was like, I don't think they did this for the Mr. Rogers doc. But, you know, I think the moment that changed for us was when we found a company, which is Netflix, that had a young, Latino person in the room who was able to say, yeah, this guy's fucking huge.

That's both sad but not surprising, at all.

CONSTANTINI But the two places that we were talking to about buying this film were places that had Latinos at the head of something that knew, really knew who Walter was. It was a very eye-opening experience for me, but I think the good news is the solution is just hire more of us.

Right. It's pretty obvious that having an inclusive and diverse set of decision makers means more opportunities for underrepresented groups to be heard and not ignored or dismissed.

FUMERO And also, Walter dreamed of crossing over. That was a big piece of his dream. You see it in the film when we started talking about legacy. I think part of the reason that Walter felt his legacy was incomplete was because he never got to, sort of, have that final, 'Do these other folks know about me?' And those other folks are us, right? I don't think he expected the crossover to happen that way. So with us, he was able to do that. I think at the Miami event, he saw that because all of these English dominant Latinos were flocking to him, kissing his hand and wanting selfies, you know? And I think that maybe gave him a little bit of permission to let go. 

Was he able to watch any of the documentary? What did he think about it if so?

CONSTANTINI Yea, about 20 minutes of it. We went back to Puerto Rico, about five weeks before he passed away. He saw about 20 minutes and he loved it. It was the beginning of the film, about his childhood and his time in Puerto Rico and his first astrological reading. He hadn't seen all of that footage in a very long time and I think he loved it. He was very cute. Kareem and I said goodbye to him. After we said goodbye to him, Willie [Mercado's assistant] told us to come back into the room and say goodbye to him again. I think Kareem and I both had a sense at that point that it might be the last time we see him. 

What message do you think this documentary offers to those who watch?

CONSTANTINI One that sticks with me is how brave Walter was, to do what he did when he did it. This idea of being radically yourself, of being brave enough to say what you think or show who you are. That stuck with me. Walter was expressing his inner self in every way. So I really admire that bravery. I think we live during a time when our politicians are very eager to remind us of our divisions. They are very eager to remind us we are different from one another. And I think Walter's message of inclusion is more important now than ever. It's a message that we learned when we were young kids and it seemed so easy and so fundamental, but I actually think it's very hard to put into practice, to treat everybody with love, to treat people who you don't agree with with love. Walter was constantly learning. He was constantly reading, to try to learn about every kind of culture and religion in the world.

TABSCH Walter's life's work wasn't the shtick of wearing the capes and the wigs and makeup and the astrology. Walter's life's work was imparting in each one of us who watched him the message that the most important thing you can do in life was love and be loved. Give love freely and to receive it freely. That's what he did for 50 plus years. You think of your life as coming to an end. Do you want to know that you're always going to be remembered for having worn fabulous capes and having the best feathered hair? No. Walter's legacy is this message of love. That we should all love one another with everything we can. I think one of the beauties of the film is... that Miami event, in particular, and even the way the film is being received thus far, is this expression of give me my flowers when I'm alive. It's like don't wait for me to die to give me flowers, like celebrate me. Walter was able to have that. I think the Miami event and the fact that we finished filming, you know, a day before he died, I think even though he wouldn't talk about it, it gave a realization that his job was done. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.