This past Sunday afternoon, I received a slew of text messages saying the internationally syndicated, flamboyantly dressed Puerto Rican TV star Walter Mercado had died. From co-workers to close friends, people seemed to want to associate me with the late, great astrologer. It might've be partly because I have a series of photos of Mercado with my dad, circa the 1970s, prominently displayed on my desk.
For a few years after moving to Miami from Spain, my father, Carlos del Busto III, worked as a photographer. One of his adventures led to his spending a couple of days in the company of Walter Mercado when the TV star visited the Magic City in 1974.
According to my pops, Mercado was flown to Miami by Chin Martinez, who planned to present Mercado with the Chin de Plata. As my dad told it, he was tasked with picking up Mercado at the airport and photographing him around town. There’s one photo of Mercado getting a blow-dry at a hair salon. In another, Mercado strikes a serious pose outside of what appears to be a bridal store. Wearing one of his signature capes, with his hands on his hips, he gazes at the camera.
In another sepia-toned photo, my dad and Mercado stand beneath a large marquee at Dade County Auditorium that reads, "Predicciones 74, Walter Mercado, tonite 8 pm."
My dad's assessment of Mercado: "Era un hombre del pueblo y aparte de la fama que tenía, siempre fue un hombre sencillo. Quería mucho la gente de Puerto Rico y se llevaba muy bien con los cubanos aquí en exilio."
Translation: "He was a man of the people, and apart from the fame he achieved, he was always a simple man. He loved the people of Puerto Rico, and he got along very well with the Cubans in exile in Miami."
As a kid, like many other Latinos growing up in the States, I remember my grandmother tuning in to watch Mercado’s weekly horoscope, which aired on Univision's news show, Primer Impacto. She’d sit in her rocking chair and hang on every word as the bejeweled man with long flowing hair delivered his astrological forecast to her and a hundred million other devoted TV viewers. I can still hear the sound of the cafetera dancing on the stovetop and smell the sweet aroma of freshly brewed cafecito (with espumita).
My abuela was a good Catholic woman, so of course she didn’t believe in reading the stars or interpreting how the planets align from month to month. But Mercado was so beloved it didn’t matter. When he ended his program with his iconic signoff — "Paz, mucha paz, pero sobre todo, mucho, mucho, mucho amor" — my grandma would turn to me, seated cross-legged on the floor next to her, and emphasize the importance of that message.
A silly horoscope delivered by a flamboyantly dressed performer of indeterminate gender didn’t matter; the real takeaway was the appeal to be kind to people and approach each day with love and peace in your heart.
This past August, HistoryMiami brought the astrologer back to Miami for what would be one of his last public appearances. The museum was opening a limited-engagement exhibition about Mercado and his work. "Mucho, Mucho Amor: 50 Years of Walter Mercado" celebrated the Latino icon through memorabilia from his past and a magnificent collection of his capes. Having recently learned about my father's connection to Mercado, I invited my dad to come to the opening reception as my date.
In the middle of the festivities, Mercado was ushered in on a golden throne. He wore a shimmering gold blazer and smiled softly as he waved and nodded at the crowd. I commented to my dad how great Mercado still looked for a man nearing 90, and we laughed as we speculated about his many trips to the plastic surgeon.
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Hundreds of guests pressed forward to get a closer glimpse of the myth himself. They nearly upended the throne, and Mercado was quickly wheeled away. I’d never seen such a diverse group react so strikingly to one man.
At that moment, it became clear to me: Walter Mercado’s reach truly knew no bounds.