Latin America & Caribbean

Walter Mercado: Flamboyant TV astrologer adored by millions dies

Walter Mercado is seen at the opening of "Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado" at HistoryMiami Museum on August 1, 2019 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Walter Mercado was a gay icon to many in the Spanish-speaking world, though he didn't discuss his sexuality

"When I was younger I thought he was a superhero."

"I remember sitting too close to the TV and straining my ears to listen..."

"An angel that graced this planet in our lifetime with such divine spirit has left us. It would have been an honor to meet you, but I'm so grateful for the memories I have of watching you with my grandma Mima. ¡Con mucho mucho mucho amor!"

These tributes, the last from Sin City actress Rosario Dawson, are among the thousands of warm words shared online to honour Walter Mercado - a flamboyant Puerto Rican astrologer whose TV horoscope readings charmed an audience of millions for decades.

Mercado was one of Latin entertainment's best-loved faces, but stumbled into his career by pure chance. He was reportedly aged 87 or 88 when he died on Saturday, but when asked about it once, replied simply: "Soy ageless..." [I'm ageless..."]

Never heard of him but starting to wish you had? Read on...

'As a kid I'd wonder "he or she?" but I literally always loved him'

Walter Mercado was known across Latin America and the US for his melodramatic predictions and colourful appearance, which frequently included capes and huge gemstone rings.

While he never publically stated his sexuality, he was a gay icon to many for refusing to embrace traditional gender norms.

Comedian Gabe Gonzalez described the sequinned showman as "weird and beautiful and eccentric and dressed in extravagant capes I'd try to imitate using my grandmother's sheets," adding, "he defied everything I'd been taught about how I "should" act as a Puerto Rican man".

"He never identified as queer, but it felt like he refused to be constrained by gender norms and antiquated ideas of masculinity."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mercado poses for a portrait in 2001 in Los Angeles, California

On Twitter, a user with the handle Scam Likely put it this way:

"[Mercado was] My first real exposure and normalization of non-conforming gender identity. For a long time as a kid I'd wonder "he or she" but I literally always loved him, it never mattered."

There was a sense in which the star made his own rules, heedless of both TV norms and traditional Latino machismo.

Writer Glen Weldon recalled: "I married into a Cuban family 20 years ago and promptly - crazily promptly - learned of the primacy of Walter Mercado.

"He got a pass from their reflexive baseline homophobia because he was WALTER MERCADO. Living out loud in a caftan."

Alex Fumero, a Los Angeles-based producer who has spent two years working on a documentary about Mercado, told AP that refusing to comment on his sexuality allowed the celebrity psychic to maintain the respect of conservatives who might have shunned the idea of an openly gay television star.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mercado's capes on display at the 2019 opening of "Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado" at the HistoryMiami Museum

While there is some debate about his year of birth, Mercado is believed to have entered the world in 1932, on a ship travelling from Spain to Puerto Rico.

He grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, as the youngest of three children, and began his career as an actor and dancer.

His big break in astrology came by chance in 1969, when he was asked to step in for a guest who hadn't turned up to El Show del Medio Día, a daytime TV show he was appearing on to promote a play.

Mercado ad libbed a segment on horoscopes, and within three months had secured his own hour-long show.

By the 1980s he was a staple part of Latin American television, reading all 12 zodiac signs with dramatically rolled 'r's, and signing off with his catch-phrase, "Pero sobre todo, mucho, mucho, mucho amor." ["Above all, lots and lots of love."]

Spanish speakers in the US came to adore him in the 1990s through Primer Impacto, a Spanish-language news show.

The HistoryMiami museum says Mercado reached up to 120 million viewers a day for more than 30 years. Some lucky viewers would be promised romance, others were urged to stop holding grudges.

Some of his most memorable predictions included that Bill Clinton would be elected US president, and that Madonna would land the lead role of Eva Perón in the film Evita.

Of the 2016 US election, he said: "I am totally, completely and absolutely in favour of Hillary, and astrologically, she is the better prospect."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption He was known for high profile predications, including that Madonna would star in Evita

Many of those paying tribute to Mercado noted the large part he had played in their childhoods, and how his readings had brought generations together.

"If you grew up in a Hispanic household you know that when he came on - you were to remain quiet," observed journalist Jennifer Martinez on Twitter.

"I felt this in my guts. Such a huge part of my childhood," wrote Karla Monterroso.

"He was something rare for US Latinos," reporter Adrian Carrasquillo said, sharing a video of Mercado being carried into the HistoryMiami museum on a golden throne. "An icon families watched for decades."

One of Mercado's charms was that whatever the stars (allegedly) held for you, he made time to wish you well.

As Cuban-American actress Chrissie Fit put it: "Every day, #WalterMercado would ask us to look up at the stars, to dream, to find peace, and above everything else... LOVE!"

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