We are in our final week of honoring Queer LatinX culture and history and it seems fitting to go out with the infamous Walter Mercado. The icon was an astrologer and T.V. spiritual advisor who held daily shows to over 120 million viewers at the height of his career. His charisma and charm captivated his followers while his androgynous identity baffled his critics. In a culture overrun with Catholicism and gender roles, Walter Mercado became a beacon of hope for many LatinX viewers who were also gender non-conforming. His defiance of the norms broke the barrier of sexuality and even at age 87 he couldn’t suppress a grin when folks questioned whether he still held onto his V-card. So let us dive into the mystical world that is Walter Mercado or – Walter of the Miracles.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on March 9, 1932, the same year that women’s suffrage was passed in Puerto Rico and the same year the island voted in the first female legislator in the Western Hemisphere. Walter seemed destined to the realm of spirituality at a young age. He was always considered ‘different’, but rather than discouraging this, Mercado’s mother Aida told him to embrace his authenticity saying “to be different is a gift; to be ordinary is common”. Decades later Walter’s close confidant Willie Acosta told producers,” Walter always takes a pill called an I-don’t-care pill,”.
This early acceptance of his so-called ‘differences’ empowered Walter Mercado. His confidence was transformed into purpose through a unique experience when he was a young boy. After a small bird lay dying in his backyard, Walter picked up the injured animal, prayed for it, and then released it to fly away. Astounded by what she had seen, a neighbor began to spread the word of Walter’s healing powers. Villagers lined up outside of the Mercado home and waited for a chance to touch Walter of the Miracles. These experiences influenced Mercado to study pharmacy and psychology when he went off to university. He hoped to create more medicines and healing techniques for those in need. However, it seems that medicine began to take a backseat to Watler’s other passion, the Arts.
The 1950s saw a revival of Puerto Rican culture as the United States finally allowed the Island to become a Commonwealth and adopt a constitution. A decision that came more than 50 years after American oppression and capitalist corruption. The transition to the commonwealth was by no means easy. Two Puerto Rican revolutionaries failed in an attempt to assassinate President Harry Truman in hopes of inspiring true independence from America. Yet as is often the case in times of civil unrest, the Arts thrived amidst the chaos. Walter Mercado became a national sensation on the dance floor and soon began his work as an actor as well. Television didn’t make it’s way to the island until 1954 but within a matter of years, Walter Mercado was appearing on various shows.
His time as an actor eventually lead to his life’s work. One day when a guest canceled for a day time show slot, the producer asked Walter to fill in at the last minute. Unsure of what he should do during his 25-minute slot, the producer suggested Walter discuss the astrology he was constantly going on about. The segment was an instant success and the story goes that as soon as Walter ended the general manager requested he sign on for a 15-minute spot every day. Within 3 months, 15 minutes had turned into a one hour slot on the variety show El Show de las 12. His show, Walter, Las Estrellas y Usted” (“Walter, the Stars, and You”) became the first one dedicated completely to astrology and launched in 1969.
Over the years Walter’s show continued to morph and transform in its reach. He continued his daily segment but also launched a more in-depth weekly show on Telemundo which explored Tarot readings and the occult. As the popularity of Mercado rose, so did the demand for his work. He wrote daily horoscopes for newspapers, hosted a morning radio show, and appeared as a guest on countless news and talk show segments. Including his most popular slot Primer Impacto. It is estimated that around 150 radio stations aired his show during its peak with millions and millions of television viewers every single week. In the Latin world, there were few more notorious figures than Walter Mercado. He inspired an almost cult-like following. His popularity only increased with his introduction to the English speaking world.
“You’re bigger than Jesus Christ,” Howard Stern told Mercado when Walter arrived as a radio guest. The astrologer preferred to be compared to the Buddha but took the compliment none the less. His expansion into English television and radio came as a result of his partnership with Bill Bakula. Though Walter had become a star in his own right, it was under Bakula’s management that he became a “Prophet of the New Age”. His number of viewers and listeners went from millions to more and 100 million audience members weekly. He appeared on nearly every major morning show and radio show in America and Canada. By the 1990s, Walter became one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Though his identity and expression bucked the standards of the day – and even many people’s standards to this day – somehow Mercado thrived above it all. Even as comedians built their sketches off of homophobic and queerphobic jokes aimed at Mercado, often through impressions, the megastar continued to be idolized. People clamored for what they saw as an eccentric personality and they adored his commitment to his authenticity. As one commentator put it, “He was both embraced and othered at the same time”. In many ways, Walter Mercado could not be compared to the average individual who wishes to defy gender norms. He was seen as a spiritual being by many, as a laughing stock by some, and as an individual simply not of this world by most. But for a few, he was the very strand of hope to which they clung.
Celebrity Karlo Karlo speaks fondly of Walter Mercado, stating:
“Growing up, as a queer boy, and watching Walter Mercado gave me hope. I saw Walter and I was like ‘okay, I’m not that different’. Here you have a man on television breaking all of these rules.”
But it wasn’t simply Mercado’s expression that inspired people, it was his flippancy over those who tried to criticize or mock him. Walter didn’t simply wear the extravagant clothes and jewelry, he spoke openly about his feminine energy and refused to be embarrassed by it. Rather than shrinking way in fear when someone hurled the F word or defiantly insisting he was not a queer, Mercado seem unfazed by those insults. Walter Mercado did not believe that being called a woman or being called a queer was offensive because he did not view LGBTQ+ people or women as inferior. The Machismo of the LatinX culture could not stick to Walter.
Yet when it came to his sexuality, Mercado was very closed-lipped. This could be due to a lack of terminology. It seems likely that Walter was asexual and possibly aromantic. Throughout the years’ many people tried to get him to open up about his romances. Yet the astrologer replied that he was a virgin or made statements such as this, “I have sex with the wind, with the flowers in the garden, and all the beautiful displays of nature. I don’t need a person, especially, to make me happy and have experiences with. No, I have sex with life”. Walter’s long time assistant Willie reinforces this fact and strongly rebuffs the rumors that the two of them are lovers. “My relationship with Walter is a family relation. I have never touched Walter with a finger” Acosta adamantly tells producers in the documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.
For those on the outside, it seems easier to believe Mercado is gay or bisexual than to believe he has no desire for sex at all. But for those who understand that gender expression is not tied to sexual orientation the two are distinctly separated. It is not surprising that this spiritual individual would not find the same connections to humanity as others, but would connect to the world around him in a different way. However, this simple explanation does not stop the rumors from flying. Many have assumed that Walter Mercado was gay and never came out to protect his career, though most have let the point rest. This fits the LatinX culture as Karlo Karlo points out in a notorious Puerto Rican saying, “What you can see, don’t ask about”. When pressed about his sexuality in his final interview, Walter was asked “Are you a virgin?” to which he replied “The only one in town”.
At the height of his popularity in 1995, Walter signed over all rights to manager Bill Bakula in a contract he did not read. The contract stripped Mercado of all rights to his public image, name, likeness, and work in all territories under the universe for all of time. While it seems Walter believed in his passion first, he certainly is not completely blameless for the entanglement of Bill Bakula. However, it was Bill who turned Mercado’s work into a fraud through 1-800 numbers that scammed countless poor and innocent people. The contract put Bill in charge of all of Walters work and isolated Mercado from his employees, his business partners, and eventually his fans. Bakula made millions upon millions off of Walter and the work he created under Walter’s name. By the time Walter realized the situation, he was locked into an airtight contract with Bill that took him 6 years to break and forced Walter out of television as he had no legal rights to his name. His final show aired in October of 2006. In Bakula’s interview, he showed no remorse or regrets for his actions.
The trial and the damage to the friendship were devastating for Walter. Though he eventually earned back some income, he lost the rest of the court battle. Two days later, Walter suffered a massive heart attack which prevented him from ever returning to television. Over the years many of his capes were sold for funds and treatment and a few were donated to raise money for charities. In the last few years, Mercado’s popularity has seen a small spike from younger generations. The 2020 Netflix documentary helps to explain the sudden disappearance of the astrologer and reignite interest. But Walter would not get to experience it as he passed away from kidney cancer on November 2, 2019.
Throughout his life, Walter received numerous awards including Mr. Television by the Association of Latin Entertainment in 2014. But his impact and legacy for the LGBTQ+ community and for Puerto Rican’s is perhaps our favorite. We appreciate him giving millions of people the courage to extend so much acceptance, tolerance, and much, much, love to the world around them.
- Wiki (Mercado) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Mercado
- New Yorker – https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-improbable-charisma-of-walter-mercado
- NPR – https://www.npr.org/2020/07/08/888641022/walter-mercado-remembered-with-mucho-mucho-amor
- PR Timeline – https://welcome.topuertorico.org/history6.shtml