In the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, the campy documentary series “The Tiger King” blew up on social media as millions of homebound viewers binge-watched on Netflix. Hilarious Facebook memes abounded and FOMO (“fear of missing out”) drove even more subscribers to the streaming service.
Four months later, “Mucho, Mucho Amor,” a documentary about the flamboyant Puerto Rican astrologer and television personality Walter Mercado, has equally captivated viewers — both from the Spanish-speaking world where he was regarded as a member of the family, and those encountering the enigmatic figure for the first time.
When asked about the sensation created by the film, co-director and producer Kareem Tabsch responded, “Sure, we’ll take it. People are home and watching. I’d rather people be safe and healthy, and our film is acting as a distraction, an uplifting distraction.”
The Miami native and co-founder of O Cinema in Wynwood added, “The reality was Walter Mercado was a giant figure for Latinos in the U.S. and Latin America. He had an audience of 120 million … and was a huge, beloved figure. You never know if a film about someone that big will translate, but we knew we had something special.”
Mercado was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1932 (Tabsch said Mercado refused to discuss his age, among other things) and studied dance and acting, eventually becoming a telenovela star and teacher. Fifty years ago, he was in the studio and when a guest failed to show, was invited to present his astrological horoscopes on a popular talk show. The rest was history, as they say.
For the next three decades, he was a regular fixture on Spanish language television, bedecked in jeweled outfits and flowing capes that surely made pianist Liberace jealous, and sporting a coif that was “a mix of good ‘70s men’s hair and your grandma’s hair,” as one interviewee points out.
In the machismo Hispanic culture, the androgynous performer refused to discuss his sexuality and managed to disarm the homophobia that still abounds.
“I have sex with the wind, with the flowers in the garden, with all the beautiful display of nature. I don’t need a person especially to make me happy or to make me have an orgasmic experience. I have sex with life, I have sex with everything, with clothes, with beauty,” Mercado explained in the film.
Tabsch first engaged Mercado three years ago and spent two years regularly traveling to Puerto Rico for filming and research.
“There were never any breaks [during filming],” recalled Tabsch. “We were given unfettered access to him. There were things he did not like talking about – his age, his plastic surgery, his sexuality, but more importantly he didn’t like talking about the negative times, the hard times in his life.”
“You don’t have to believe in religion, you don’t have to believe in astrology, you can be a skeptic or an atheist, but none of that matters because Walter Mercado’s message was ultimately a message of love and hope,” Tabsch added. “Love each other, love yourself, allow yourself to be loved. That sense of the power of love, cliché as it sounds, is the ultimate core of his legacy.”
Sadly, Mercado passed away last year before the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. But, Mercado was there in spirit. His family brought three fabulous capes for Tabsch and his colleagues to wear on the red carpet.
“I like to joke that the reason we made the movie to play Walter Mercado drag, but the reality, was we soon realized Walter loved people trying on his capes. He realized how much joy it brought people,” Tabsch concluded.
Watch now on Netflix.