It's hard to imagine Walter Mercado ever being shy.
When the world-famous eccentric Puerto Rican astrologer hops on the phone with New Times for what is supposed to be a 20-minute interview, he launches into his life's story without being prompted. The call lasts more than a half-hour.
“Mi amor, the trajectory is long, so we’ll see what interests you most,” he says before relaying his tales of kismet, capes, and karmic fortune.
As a child, Mercado battled a heart defect and a stutter, the latter of which greatly challenged his self-esteem. He says the larger-than-life TV personality whom people have come to know over the decades was borne out of overcompensation for the personal challenges he faced as a kid. But when speaking to him, it's clear that either much of his dramatic flair is inherent, or he's been with the character long enough to completely inhabit it. Discussing the works he performed onstage nearly half a century ago before making it big as a reader of the cosmos, he often breaks out into poetic verses midconversation, rolling his r's into what sounds like multiple syllables.
Mercado is reflecting on his five-decade-plus career for good reason. This Friday, August 2, HistoryMiami will open "Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado." The exhibit will display artifacts from Mercado's half-century in the entertainment business, from his ballet and flamenco-dancing days to his years as a radio and television actor to the caped astrologer we know today. Among the items museum visitors will get to see at the exhibit are 12 extravagant capes he once wore, including a sequined number decorated with the flag of his homeland and later worn by Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Every object that is there — every cape, every tarot card, everything that you’ll see there — has a story... that has touched me profoundly,” Mercado says.
Frequent HistoryMiami visitors will notice that one of Mercado's rose-gold-toned capes has been on view for some time. But the museum's executive director, Jorge Zamanillo, says that cape pales in comparison to the 12 vibrant designs that will be on display through August 25. It was the estate sale through which that cape was acquired that sparked the idea for a large-scale exhibit.
“The turnout for the sale was across generations," Zamanillo says. "It wasn’t just older people, it was all generations — including people in their 20s — going to see this, to see what was available. And it struck me as kind of an amazing story, in Miami especially. It is a typical Miami story."
Zamanillo, who was born in New York but grew up in Miami, says that watching Mercado on TV with family has been a rite of passage for Latinx kids in the city for decades, and that it's this nostalgic element that has piqued locals' interest in the exhibit.
“Whether you followed astrology or not, he was talking to you — Pisces, Capricorn... I remember my mom [being] fascinated and making sure she heard her sign when it came up. She couldn’t miss it,” he says.
It feels personal enough when Mercado calls your sign out on television, but it's particularly affecting when he asks for your sign on a phone call. He asks during a lull in conversation and beams at the answer: Virgo.
"Oh, I love it! My regent planet is in Virgo! And all Virgos have been very important in my life, many, many of them: directors, producers... Virgos, who are such perfectionists and demanding when they know what they want. I love them!”
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During his peak in viewership, Mercado espoused similar reads of astrological signs to upward of 120 million people daily. "That’s more than Super Bowl ratings for one day, but every single day," Zamanillo says. "That’s quite a reach — and not many people can claim that."
Those are astounding numbers for a TV segment that began serendipitously when singer Camilo Sesto failed to show up at the studio where Mercado performed one afternoon in the early '70s. Famed producer Elin Ortiz asked Mercado to fill the slot by making astrological predictions while wearing elaborate robes, and Mercado launched into one of the monologues many viewers have come to know well over the years. He says it all came to him naturally after years of fascination and study of the cosmos.
Decades later, he says the fateful opportunity happened not by chance, but after lifetimes of karmic fortune. He says the same of his HistoryMiami exhibit. “It’s like a culmination. It makes me very humble, because I receive it with much humility, but with infinite gratitude.”
"Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado." Friday, August 2, through Sunday, August 25, at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-1492; historymiami.org. Admission costs $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for children aged 6 to 12; children under 6 get in free.