To understand Hispanic culture, you must understand Walter Mercado.
Mercado, a Puerto Rican astrologer millennials will most fondly remember for his daily segments on the Univisión sensationalist news program Primer Impacto in the 1990s, died on Saturday as arguably the most respected person in Latin America.
His final gift to his people was to precipitate the resignation of former Puerto Rican Governor Roberto Rosselló – hundreds of thousands took the streets demanding he step down, but he only listened after Walter told him to.
He was 87 years old and reportedly died of renal failure in San Juan, surrounded by his family. He leaves us during the Scorpio sun season when the barrier between the living and the dead is reportedly at its thinnest.
For anyone not familiar with Hispanic culture, getting to know Walter Mercado is diving in on the deep end. Mercado spent the better part of five decades wearing a plump bleach-blonde coif, his every finger joint bejeweled with ostentatious rings, his back covered in glittery velvet capes that your grandma always told you were worth at least $3000 (in 1993). His job was to deliver the horoscope on a news broadcast, providing the only information on the show that viewers would actually apply to their daily lives.
There is simply no analogy in Anglophone American culture.
A love of theatrics got him there. Mercado began his career as an actor and dancer – despite having a college degree in psychology and pharmaceutical science – seeking a singular place for his personality in the world of entertainment. He appeared in over ten Puerto Rican soap operas (telenovelas) before finding his calling in 1969 by happy accident. Mercado delivered his first televised horoscope that year as a substitute performance on a local Puerto Rican television broadcast after the original performer – the also recently departed Spanish pop superstar Camilo Sesto – backed out.
The rest is, as they say, is history.
Mercado approached horoscopes more as emotional counseling than telling the future. He would always urge Tauruses to listen to the other side of arguments, gently nudge the Capricorns to take a vacation, warn his fellow Pisceans to beware of those seeking to manipulate their desire to take care of everyone around them. Nobody ever won the lottery thanks to Mercado’s talents, but they learned a lot about themselves in a world where therapy was non-existent and the priest could only punish you with Hail Marys, not help you avoid any new sins.
This service proved highly valuable to his audience of refugees and immigrants in the United States forced to resort to Univisión’s otherwise insufferable soap opera programming (please do not ask us about Marimar, we are still scarred) or take a chance on watching something in English they didn’t understand. The result: ask any Hispanic person you know what would happen to them if, as a child, they tried to speak during Mercado’s segment. A cacophony of threats to shush or face the chancleta (house sandal) erupted from your mother, grandmother, aunt, and basically anyone over 40 in the room.
There is no real record of Mercado’s sexual identity. His extraterrestrial wardrobe and long-established single lifestyle placed him for years in a category of public figure Mexico’s most famous “confirmed bachelor” Juan Gabriel once described as “lo que se ve no se pregunta” – roughly, “if it’s obvious, don’t ask.” But unlike Juan Gabriel, who never affirmed his sexuality either way, Walter Mercado baffled the world in 2003 by announcing that he had once taken a vow of celibacy and that he would be breaking it by marrying Brazilian model Mariette Detotto. Detotto began to appear with him on his daily horoscope segments and faded away with the bizarre intellectual property feud that saw Mercado leave Univisión and rechristen himself “Shanti Ananda,” his “authentic name in the mystical.”
In one of his final interviews, Mercado tread not into his sexuality, but his gender identity, insisting, “Everyone knows we have two energies – yin and yang – and I know how to balance them. If I have to be a warrior, then I’ll be that. If I have to be soft and subtle, I can be that, too. I broke the barriers.”
This refusal to conform made him the butt of many jokes over the years in a culture not yet entirely comfortable outside of its rigid definition of traditional masculinity, but none of those jokes ever made anyone doubt the validity of his horoscopes.
It must be said that Mercado took notable advantage of this respect. He fronted a variety of scams that likely stripped wayward Latinos of millions of dollars in the decades he was active, selling “spiritual soaps,” candles, massage oils, CDs, and all manner of useless junk. Prior to his residency on Primer Impacto, Mercado was a staple in Spanish-language infomercials for his psychic hotline and spiritual services. His empire allegedly boasted “experts” that could teach you how to prepare a spiritually cleansing herbal bath or cast spells to snag that special someone. Much of what he sold formed part of the spiritual practices known commonly in the Caribbean as santería, which derive from primarily Yoruba African traditions. Nowaways, anyone can use Google to figure out which herbs to buy at their local botánica (witchcraft store), but in Mercado’s heyday, he leveraged his “knowledge” for cash.
Those robes don’t pay for themselves!
But unlike, say, John Edward or Miss Cleo in Anglophone America, who ultimately met a fate of infamy, Mercado kept the trust of the people in a way that no politician, journalist, doctor, or lawyer ever could.
He leaves the world one in which Latin Americans are significantly more integrated into the cultural fabric of the United States than ever before. Affluent white Americans, mostly of the coastal leftist variety, are experiencing an often annoying astrology renaissance, pretending they are the first people to use star charts to learn more about themselves. The fact that these people are gentrifying communities where Walter Mercado was the only part of the news that mattered cannot be discounted as a factor.
Their analogs in the Hispanic community, threatened into silence during his Primero Impacto segments, are flooding the Anglophone internet with all-purpose Walter memes, for when you must know all the gossip or you need a night out on the town.
This interconnectedness is, of course, the natural process of cultural integration that makes America the greatest nation on earth.
With his death, Walter Mercado has now turned the growing pain dividing Americans into those who know him and those who don’t into a thing of the past, leaving us free to all be just American.