Nearly every Latinx person knows who Walter Mercado is. And if you're not Latinx, chances are his face looks familiar.
The late Puerto Rican astrologer – who is the subject of a recent and great Netflix documentary — is not only one of Latin America's biggest pop culture icons, but also a huge Latinx queer icon. He allowed many people to feel accepted and loved, dedicating his career to spreading positivity through horoscopes – and, of course, "mucho, mucho amor."
But in case you don't know who he is or know a bit about him and are curious about how he became such a huge pop culture icon for Latinxs, here's a primer on who he was.
Walter started out as a dancer and actor in the '50s. He starred in plenty of telenovelas, including Un adiós en el recuerdo and Larga distancia. In 1969, while doing a play in Puerto Rico called Triptico del amor, del dolor y de la muerte, actor Elin Ortiz invited Walter on his Telemundo show to promote the play. While on set, Elin started talking to Walter about astrology.
Walter was known for reading everyone's palms and asking people their zodiac sign, and he always considered himself to have supernatural gifts. So, with Elin's encouragement, Walter filmed an improvised segment where he gave each zodiac sign their horoscope.
When Walter wrapped up the segment, Telemundo's general manager said people were calling in requesting for Walter to do it again. In the Netflix documentary about Walter titled Mucho Mucho Amor, his assistant Willie Acosta said that because the segment was such a huge success, after three months on the show, Walter got a segment on El Show de las 12, titled Walter, las estrellas, y usted.
From there, Walter became a bonafide star. His segment became famous in the island. He was instantly recognizable for his penchant for jewelry and capes. So many bejeweled capes!
In the '80s, entrepreneur Bill Bakula requested to be Walter's manager after becoming impressed with his star power. Bill came up with the concept of a bigger TV show for Walter, with a higher production quality. Bill quickly gained Walter's trust and the show became a reality. It turned him into an even bigger star, making history as the first show on TV solely dedicated to astrology.
Suddenly, Walter was everywhere. He even had a stint on radio, giving morning horoscopes. He expanded his fame to all of Latin America, the United States, and even Europe. Suddenly, he became the world's most famous astrologer. He became such a huge pop culture phenomenon that Howard Stern referred to him as "bigger than Jesus Christ."
Walter remained a huge pop culture figure for decades. I even remember him being on TV at my grandma's house in the early 2000s, continuing to give each zodiac sign reassurance that good things were coming their way. While it was considered taboo in Puerto Rico and Latin America in general to be an effeminate man, Walter carved a space for folks who didn't fit gender norms, showing that anyone can be confident and be a star. That's not to say that he didn't have people making offensive parodies of his persona, but they didn't hinder his fame.
But here's where his story gets a bit complicated. In 1995, his manager, Bill, gave him a contract to sign. Walter asked a lawyer's advice, who gave him the green light. But Walter never read the contract, and missed a very important detail: he had now signed over the rights to all his work over to Bill. Not only that, but he also signed over the rights to his name! And since the contract didn't specify when it ended, that meant that Bill had the rights to everything related to Walter forever.
According to what Walter said in his Netflix documentary, Bill began recycling his old horoscopes, which didn't sit well with Walter. But Walter had no way of stopping him because Bill had the rights to all materials – including print. At one point, Bill even stopped paying Walter, even though Walter was regularly filming his TV show.
Walter and Bill went to court, with Walter attempting to find a solution to his unfair contract. During that time, the court decided Walter would not be able to use his name professionally until the dispute was settled, stopping him from having his show or even appearing anywhere as "Walter Mercado". Eventually, Walter got his rights back, but the damage was done. Walter suffered so much for nearly a decade that once the conflict was over, it had still had a physical toll on him, causing heart problems. In 2006, he officially stopped his show.
Instead, he fell out of the spotlight, still recognized as an important pop culture figure but without the huge following he had before. But Walter never stopped being his fabulous self. He dreamt of returning to TV up until his death in November 2019.
For Latinx – particularly LGTBQ Latinxs – Walter became a symbol of positivity and hope. He proved that it doesn't matter if you're different; you can achieve anything by being yourself. Walter remained mum about his sexual orientation (though he had plenty of female companions throughout his life, including Mariette Detotto), but he still embraced his status as a queer icon. All he wanted was to bring people comfort in knowing everything would be alright, which is an incredibly honorable mission to dedicate your life to.
If you want to learn more about Walter's life and significance in Latinx culture, his Netflix documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend Of Walter Mercado, is a comprehensive look at his life story and vital legacy.
Join BuzzFeed as we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and explore more content celebrating la cultura.
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