Before there were essential oils, jade rolling, Marianne Williamson, and Co-star, there was Walter Mercado. For more than 30 years, the Puerto Rican astrologer reached 120 million Latinx viewers a day on both Telemundo and Univision. Generations of Latinxs in the U.S. and Latin America grew up hearing his “consejos” (advice); abuelas religiously tuned in to his recurring segment on Primer Impacto, Univision’s top news broadcast. Recently, Anderson Cooper used him as a reference point, claiming that if Trump tweeted out Mercado’s predictions — which for 2019 included “Donald Trump, the controversial president, will face his worst year and perhaps even impeachment” — the GOP would defend it as fact. (He later added “No disrespect to Walter Mercado, who is an excellent psychic.”)
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first television appearance, Miami’s history museum HistoryMiami recently unveiled “Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado” an exhibit about Mercado’s life and career. “The museum is proud to have worked with Mr. Mercado on this project, which we undertook to recognize his long-term influence on our community, and internationally,” said Michael Knoll, the museum’s Vice President of Curatorial Affairs. “He is beloved here in Miami as a pop culture icon, and also for his meaningful impact on the lives of community members.” On the night of its August 2 opening, Mercado and the museum tapped into his extravagant style — a typical outfit might have been a lime green robe, an ‘80s blowout and large costume jeweled rings on each hand — by wheeling him in on a throne for his grand entrance. The Miami Herald called it the most “Miami moment ever.”
Born in 1932 on a sugar plantation in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the now 87-year-old Mercado credits his early rural upbringing for bringing him closer to nature. In one interview, he said people from his town used to call him “Walter of the miracles” because of his paranormal experiences as a child. In college he was trained in music, dance and acting, and before his big astrology break he starred on multiple telenovelas. The exhibit displays photos of his early dancing years on Channel 4, as well as scenes from some of his acting gigs on shows like Una Sombra and La Intrusa. (Knoll said these historical photographs, and nearly every other item on display are objects from Mercado’s own personal collection.) It wasn’t until Elfin Ortiz, a comedian and producer, asked him to fill in for a no-show actor on a 15-minute slot doing zodiac sign readings that Mercado entered the world of astrology. It was such a hit that Mercado’s program would be the first show Ortiz would produce for Telemundo.
Much of Mercado’s telenovela past would bleed into his own programs — first Walter, La Estrellas, y usted in the ’80s on Telemundo and local Puerto Rican channels, which would later become El Show de Walter in the ’90s on Univision for 15 years. At heart, he was a showman. His program was never straightforward or succinct like the horoscopes we can now have delivered to our phones. (He never employed the kind of harshness Co-star, for example, is notorious for.) It was always a production for Mercado, who wore elaborately designed capes and brooches. Twelve of the capes are on display at the museum; I particularly enjoyed the white sweeping number embroidered like a deck of cards for his Valentine’s episode. His jewelry was just as opulent: a gold and amethyst bracelet from Brazil, shining pearl encrusted brooches, and bejeweled rings for every finger.
In many ways, his over-the-top persona was a soothing routine. You could always count on Walter to be in his $10,000 capes, offering advice inspired by Santeria, Christianity, Buddhism and overall spiritualism. You could find recipes for aphrodisiacs or potions, incantations, and homemade charms. You always knew what to expect. “Some people see him as an astrologer, some people see him as a showman, some people see him and don't believe him," Channel 51 president Julio Rumbaut told the Herald in a 1987 interview. "But everyone watches him, and that's what's important."
Mercado understood this too, and quickly capitalized on his popularity. In the ’90s, he recorded a daily radio horoscope show called The Stars and You, which aired over dozens of Spanish-language radio stations. He wrote a daily horoscope column that appeared in several newspapers, including El Nuevo Herald and People Magazine. He published a quarterly magazine filled with predictions and advice, and over the years he wrote seven books. He released four different perfumes, and an LP of ballads and dance tunes. He was a guest on Viva Hollywood!, a show where Latinx contestants competed for a role on a Telemundo telenovela, and filmed commercials. He gave one on one consultations for $150, had a phone network where you could call and pay for his advice, and even sold his own ingredients for his potions and recipes like Agua de Florida and cinnamon essence. He even dabbled in the dating scene when he launched the match-making site “Passion Latinos” (sadly, now defunct). Today, he mostly posts his predictions on Facebook and takes appointments through his website.
Where some might see a con man, the Latinx community saw an uplifting inspiration, someone who managed to unite all factions of the group. “Walter is like an old friend,” the Herald wrote in 1992 “He knows what makes you tick. He understands what you are going through.” One component of the exhibition invites you to leave Mercado handwritten notes, pinned to a wall painted with an astrological chart. Visible for anyone to look at, these small notes all held deep professions of love and admiration for Mercado. “I feel like “mi viejita”(my old lady) is holding my hand right now! So much joy,” read one note. “Walter, being Latino means growing up watching Walter Mercado in Univision. You are such a Latino icon,” read another. Others thanked him for bringing together generations of abuelas and granddaughters through a common love for his show, for being one of the first queer representations on Latinx televison, for providing fashion inspiration through his theatrical costumes. Old colleagues from Telemundo and friends of Mercado even left their numbers and names, in hopes to be reconnected.
The resurgence of astrology is everywhere. Astrology apps like Co-star and The Pattern are increasingly ubiquitous among young people; veteran astrologer Chani Nicholas now curates playlists based on the zodiac signs for Spotify; I, and thousands of others, check Instagram accounts like Notallgeminis and Jakesastrology for new astrology memes practically every day. Before we even had a name for it, Mercado’s show offered a window into a culture of self-care and spiritual wellness. He gave viewers positivity and hope through some of life’s most difficult moments: a death of a family member, divorce, even low self-esteem.
The Latinx community has deep roots in superstition and spirituality; in my house there was always a cup of salt water under the bed to ward off bad energy. Mercado couldn’t fix everything, but he was always ready to recommend that one oil that could be the magic cure. And he’d always send off with a few circles around the heart, a blown kiss and one final consejo: “Mucho, mucho amor.”