For generations, Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado has brought hope and the future for many families over the years.
He grew up a dancer, an actor in theater and starred in many telenovelas before his unique character debuted as a regular astrology segment for El Show de las 12. This eventually grew into a Univision network spot shown throughout the Americas. Mercado's legacy grew to international proportions before his death on Nov. 2, 2019, from kidney failure at age 87.
Bringing his story back to life, queer filmmaker Kareem Tabsch, along with Cristina Costantini, directed a new documentary called Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado that was filmed right before Mercado passed away.
Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of Miami's largest art-house cinema and has served as program director of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Other docs he has created include Cherry Pop: The Story of the World's Fanciest Cat, Dolphin Lover and The Last Resort.
Tabsch was named 20 under 40 by the Miami Herald's Business Monday in 2014 and received the Knight Arts Champion Award from the Knight Foundation.
Windy City Times: Tell our readers a little about yourself.
Kareem Tabsch: I was born and raised in Miami, where I still live. I am a Cuban/Lebanese-American queer guy. My day job is working for O Cinema, which is a really popular local art-house cinema. I have been a programmer and curator for many years.
WCT: How did tackling a subject like Walter Mercado begin?
KT: He's such a complex figure, so it was a little difficult. As a Latino growing up in South Florida, Walter was a daily presence on family television. Every afternoon, my grandmother would bring everyone around the TV and shush us as Walter came in and shared his daily horoscope. It was a sacred five minutes where we were forced to be quiet and pay attention or face the risk of being hit upside the head by grandma!
As a filmmaker, I wondered what happened to Walter Mercado. He was so ubiquitous in our culture, then the next day he basically disappeared. One of my friends, who produced the movie Moonlight, Andrew Hevia, told me I had to meet Alex Fumero, who is the vice president of programming at HBO. When we had lunch, the first thing we talked about was Walter Mercado and how we would both like to make a documentary about him. I told him I was going to an estate sale in Miami for Walter Mercado. I admitted I was not only going to buy a cape, but to try to contact the family and get to Walter somehow. We planned a follow-up call and I met Cristina Costantini on the phone. We decided to co-direct the movie together, with Fumero serving as producer.
WCT: How long did the filming take?
KT: We had been working on the project for two and a half years. We didn't know that would be the last years of his life. We were shooting with him six weeks before he died. We submitted our cut on Nov. 1 to a film festival and he died on Nov. 2.
WCT: Your story about watching Walter on TV with your grandmother is very common, including with Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda.
KT: Exactly. Lin is an avatar for all of us with the experience he had. Lin is a huge superstar and a fan. He was like a little kid when he met Walter. Alex Fumero had reached out to Lin while he was doing Hamilton in Puerto Rico, so they arranged for them to meet before a show. We were quite lucky to capture that in the film.
WCT: I worked as a rep in a store in Chicago where Walter Mercado did an in-store signing of his astrological CD. His fans were very devoted. Did he ever come out publicly?
KT: No. He never came out and didn't like labels identifying him one way or another. We talk about that quite explicitly in the film.
Walter was beyond coming out. Every day he came on television, he showed us who he was in a way that was groundbreaking, pioneering and authentic. He inspired millions of queer people that saw him. From the first time he came on as an astrologer, he was challenging what masculinity and femininity meant in how he looked and dressed. He talked freely about how the future would not be masculine or feminine, how gender would not be a thing in the future. We came across this in the archives over 30 years ago. He was radically ahead of his time. He did that in a way that was subversive. He could have possibly not had a career at the time if he came out, but he presented himself very authentically. He became an avenue for acceptability for many people in this way.
For me as a queer kid growing up, seeing Walter on TV was the first time I had seen any queer person. It was shocking. I recognized his sense of otherness. It was similar to the difference I had inside of me, even though I couldn't pinpoint it. He was beloved, famous and successful. My family adored him. If my family loved Walter Mercado as different as he was, then maybe they could love me. It was hugely important for me.
WCT: I've interviewed Eugenio Derbez before and he seemed very nice. Did he feel bad about making fun of Walter in a skit?
KT: I don't think he thought of it as making fun of Walter. He really adored Walter. Context is the key and you have to think about the time period that Eugenio was doing these impersonations and where we were as a society. He would never do that now. Eugenio was inspired by Walter because he dared to be different. He said that, but it didn't wind up in the documentary.
WCT: What are some other parts that didn't make the cut for Mucho?
KT: There's so much. We had hundreds of hours of footage after two years. There are many funny moments that we hope will come out as bonus materials.
One time we went to San Juan and stopped in to a store that Walter had been going to for 45 years. The owner and him were catching up. Walter asked him if he had any cannabis. He didn't, but had CBD. Walter said that doesn't work for him. He told us, "I don't smoke marijuana, but I love LSD. I did it a long time ago as an experiment. I had a beautiful trip!"
There were so many moments like that, which would drop out of his mouth and were hilarious to think of. He was the cutest thing ever and so smart!
WCT: I watched some of your other documentaries, such as The Last Resort and Dolphin Lover. What did you bring from those into Mucho Mucho Amor?
KT: Thank you for watching them. I am fascinated by people who live on the fringe of society. I like people who are brazen and not worried about how they will be judged.
In Dolphin Lover, Malcom Brenner is a zoophile and a small part of the population. He wanted to talk about his experience and his truth. I don't agree with him, but admire the braveness of how he lived his life.
In The Last Resort, many were holocaust survivors and immigrated from Eastern Europe. They made a paradise in Miami despite being ridiculed. South Beach was all old people then, which is hard to believe if you have been there now. They dared to create their own space.
They both influenced Mucho Mucho Amor, so hopefully there's a thread you can see throughout the docs, even though they are vastly different.
WCT: Your next project is even more different…
KT: Yes, I am working on a documentary on a photographer named Bunny Yeager. She is also from Miami and a pinup model turned photographer. She was an early contributor to Playboy and helped popularize the bikini in American culture. She helped discover Betty Page and was admired later in life.
WCT: What would you like LGBT audiences to take from Mucho Mucho Amor?
KT: As a queer Latino myself, we don't see enough of our stories told. Walter Mercado, as a figure, is a celebration of an icon for a whole community. Walter was so ahead of his time. No one looked like Walter Mercado on television. He launched his astrological personality in 1969 with capes, makeup and jewelry.
So much of the Latino representation in media is about immigration issues or drug cartels. We don't see enough positive stories. As queer Latinos, we have our heroes and they have influenced our culture. I think Walter has inspired many generations to live a life more openly and embrace themselves. I hope that audiences that don't know him, will have a joyful discovery in a moment when we need joy. There is so much divisiveness in our culture and world right now. Our leaders are preaching hate and here is somebody who had over fifty years of coming into our homes where he preached love and acceptance, regardless if you believe in astrology or religion. I can't think of a better way to live a life!
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado gives love to everyone at Netflix.com on Wed., July 8.