When news of Mercado’s death Sunday at age 88 spread online, generations of Latinx users on social media paid tribute, shared stories or posted clips of the astrologer in his trademark flowing robes with a faint smile as he blessed everyone watching with a soothing benediction, “Above all, lots and lots of love.” It felt like the end of an era.
From his humble start on a local Puerto Rican television station some 50 years ago, Mercado would eventually become a popular television personality throughout Latin America and the United States, reaching as many as 120 million viewers in his heyday. On the syndicated Spanish language news program “Primer Impacto,” Mercado would close out the half-hour block of heavy stories from the region by giving the next day’s horoscopes. He offered predictions of joy, hope, good fortunes and the occasional warning. Mercado exuded a comforting authority with his crown of styled blond hair, rows of colorful rings on his fingers, opulent costumes and a changing set that always gave off some sense of mystery and magic.
When I was a little girl, Mercado always seemed like an ethereal being surrounded by light, unbothered by the news of death or scandal that preceded him. There may have been a time when I wondered whether Mercado was a man or woman, but it was just accepted that Walter was Walter. He didn’t conform to gender norms or fall prey to machismo attitudes or homophobic prejudices. Instead, he chose to balance his masculine and feminine energies into an identity that felt right for him. He became a queer icon, someone the queer community could identify with and an LGBTQ ambassador to audiences who may have never seen anyone like him before.
In a video for Hispanic Heritage Month, comedian Julio Torres cited seeing Mercado as one of the first times he felt represented on TV. “There’s something very special and unique about Walter that I thought defied gender, or gender expression, and just sort of any expectation that you would have about a person,” he said. “It’s almost like he operates in his own frequency, and that was something that I really gravitated towards.” Although some may have mocked Mercado for his outlandish mannerism and flowing silk robes, the respect he earned always seemed to outweigh the hate.
To get a sense of just how seriously Mercado’s word was taken by my Cuban family, I remember a time when my sister and I were noisily playing near the living room TV during the evening news. As our mom prepared dinner in the kitchen, she kept one eye on us, one eye on the food and her ears tuned into the news. When it came time for Mercado’s segment, she stopped cooking to pay attention. Whatever I was doing at that moment was not as memorable as the scolding I earned for interrupting Mercado’s predictions. “You made me miss your sister’s sign!” my mother yelled from the kitchen. “Now I don’t know what’s going to happen to her.”
Eventually, I learned to listen to Mercado as intently as I would any other relative. If my mom missed one of our signs, I knew which ones to repeat back to her. Even as Mercado moved on from “Primer Impacto,” we would seek out his advice online around the end of the year. Like a visiting member of the family around the holidays, Mercado was as much a part of our New Year’s traditions as eating 12 grapes within the first minute for good luck or cleaning the house to get rid of last year’s unpleasant baggage.
After a particularly trying year, I looked up what Mercado prescribed for the zodiac sign Aries to set myself right for a new future ahead. His first piece of advice was to wear red. I did one better: I dyed the ends of my hair red. My mother then took me shopping for a new red dress, which I wore on New Year’s Eve. I followed his next step in the coming days: “You must burn a piece of paper with the list of all the negative things that happened during 2017,” he wrote. “As it burns, you should welcome all positive things and pray that all of the negatives from the past not be repeated during your lifetime.” I ripped a sheet from my reporter’s notebook and started writing, filling the page with bad memories. I folded the page and held it over a candle. It burned within seconds, which felt a little anticlimactic after so much preparation. Yet relief soon set in. If I could burn up the past 12 months when I thought my life was over in seconds, I could survive the next 12 that had yet to be written.
Through his larger-than-life persona and a career that spanned several decades, Mercado offered comfort and encouragement to anyone seeking it. He was one of those rare public Latinx figures who felt like he belonged to all of us — no matter if we grew up in the States or in Latin America; if we watched him when we were young or old; or if we identify as Latinx, Latinos or Hispanics. His lasting benediction for this and any generation of fans will always be, “Sobre todos, mucho, mucho amor.”