Walter Mercado, a man born while the sun was in Pisces and who became an iconic astrologer in Latin America and the U.S., has died in his native Puerto Rico.
A family spokesman confirmed Mercado’s death at Hospital Auxilio Mutuo in San Juan, where he was being treated after two weeks of renal failure. Mercado was 87.
From an extravagant living room surrounded by books and candlelight, Mercado delivered intricate horoscopes, which he turned into an art form for millions of Spanish-speaking households over decades. He crossed cultural and national boundaries with his predictions of romance and his cautions to heed warnings against evil intentions.
Since 1970, on TV, then on the internet, Mercado became a star with his predictions, lavish robes and grand persona. His segments were broadcast from local television stations in Puerto Rico, and he quickly gained worldwide fame as a celebrity psychic.
“I have always liked to speak to people very directly. I have used astrology to send positive messages: ‘You can do it, even if you fall, get back up again,’” Mercado said about his style in his predictions and readings.
His rise to astrological stardom was remarkably unexpected. The smallest of three children, Mercado grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico and was a lover of the arts since his beginnings. He pursued a degree in pharmacology by day at the University of Puerto Rico, and danced flamenco and ballet by night. He later became an actor of live theater, traveling on the island’s biggest stages.
Soon after television became popularized on the island in the mid-1950’s, Mercado turned his passion on the theater stage into Telenovela gigs with performances still etched in the memory of many Puerto Ricans. He also dubbed classic films — like Gone With The Wind and Tarzan — from English into Spanish.
At the time, “he was doing a play called El tríptico de amor, dolor y muerte (1969) and he played a Hindu prince. He was in very elaborate costumes with a lot of make up and a lot of jewelry,” said Kareem Tabsch, a Miami-based filmmaker who has spent the last three years co-directing a documentary on Mercado’s life that will be released in 2020.
To advertise his play, Mercado was invited then to join a midday television show on the island and talk about his performance. But a last minute guest dropped out and the producer asked Mercado to talk about something else instead.
So, as an actor, Mercado did what he did best: he improvised.
“Walter basically improvised an entire conversation on the show about astrology and the stars,” Tabsch said. What followed was a flood of calls and messages to the television station from the audience demanding more of Walter Mercado. Within three months, he had his own hour-long show.
By the mid 1990s, Mercado’s dramatic readings became an invaluable presence in most of Latin America. His daily segment on the show Primer Impacto was introduced in key U.S. Latino markets, including Miami.
“At his peak, Walter had a daily audience of about 120 million people,” Tabsch said.
Loyal fans throughout Latin America and the U.S. followed his recommended New Year’s Eve rituals religiously, and many believed they would yield love and riches in the coming year — if done as Walter Mercado preached.
In his anticipated readings, he customized essential and detailed advice for each of the 12 Zodiac signs.
For Cancer signs: “You can already feel what’s in store for you and your loved ones in 2019.”
For Libras: “Eliminate hatred, grudges, envy and bad vibrations from your system.”
For Aquarius: “Break open a dry coconut by smashing it against another coconut and allow the water to spill on your backyard.”
Mercado also weighed in on the future of regional politics, including a possible impeachment for President Donald Trump and continued injustices and protests in Cuba.
And for his beloved Miami, where he lived part time for about 30 years, he said the city was “blessed” in 2019.
“Opportunities for success by artists from around the world multiply. Miami is a secure port for those who seek fame, glory and freedom,” he said.
Though his style could not be matched, his celebrity persona was a cultural marker of the’ 90s in Latin America and his image was often imitated and reproduced.
“Imitation is flattery,” Mercado said in a recent interview with el Nuevo Herald. “There was once a survey of who was the most imitated celebrity in Latin American countries, especially in Brazil and Argentina, and I was in third place after Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.”
Ivonne Bennet, one of Mercado’s four nieces, said her uncle died around 9 p.m. Saturday of kidney failure.
“It’s been awful,” she said. “We’ve been coming and going from the hospital for days.”
Two of Bennet’s sisters flew to Puerto Rico a few days ago. But she said they had kept the information under wraps to respect the family’s privacy.
Puerto Rican journalist Omar Matos, who interviewed him numerous times during his 28-year career on the island, highlighted his kindness and his respect toward journalists.
“Sometimes you would call his house and it was him who would answer the phone. He would always have words of praise for everyone,” said Matos, adding that Mercado had a “photographic memory.”
Mercado would remember the name and astrological sign of the people he dealt with and would identify them by that trait. “He would say, ‘My favorite Libra,’ ” Matos recalled.
But his origins as a dancer and an actor never truly left him.
Tabsch, who is co-directing his biographical film with Cristina Costantini, said Mercado’s work as a male ballet dancer was groundbreaking at the time in his hometown in Puerto Rico. In his astrological predictions, he often wore heavy make up and defied conventional gender roles.
“That was groundbreaking in television anywhere, particularly groundbreaking in television in Latin America,” Tabsch said. “With so much homophobia and machismo culture, here’s someone who was himself unabashedly.”
In an exclusive interview with el Nuevo Herald in June 2019, Mercado recalled how an encounter with the late Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso when he was 14 , fueled his passion for ballet. He founded his own ballet school in Puerto Rico, and trained students in the performing arts.
In his youth, on the way to one performance at La Perla Theater in his hometown of Ponce, Mercado said the troupe lost the wardrobe, forcing the ballet teacher to dress the group in leaves and bedsheets.
“We were nude, covered only with the essential, but the audience said we had been dressed by angels. It was an incredible experience,” Mercado told el Nuevo Herald.
Outside Mercado’s two-story yellow, blue and orange villa in the Cupey suburb of San Juan, the streets were quiet on Sunday.
He lived in a gated community. No one answered the door. The home is decorated with gargoyle heads, and a Buddha statue stands atop of a blue fountain at the front of the house. The villa also bears his initials: WMS.
Mrs. Diana, a 42-year-old astrologer and tarot card reader in Puerto Rico, credits Mercado with putting her on the esoteric path.
When she was about 12 years old she called Mercado’s astrology hotline and he told her she would dedicate her life to reading the signs in the stars.
“I remember the phone bill was like $30, which was very expensive at the time,” said Mrs. Diana – who said she never gives out her last name. “Our father took away the phone after that.”
While many people think of Mercado as an over-the-top celebrity, she said he is deeply respected in astrology circles.
“This is a great loss for the world, and for us astrologers we’ve lost a great master,” she said. “The reason he was a celebrity was because he was so talented.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez also remarked on his passing.
“It’s very sad to know about the death of the charismatic and renowned Puerto Rican astrologer and actor Walter Mercado,” she wrote on Twitter. “We join in his family in prayer during these difficult times. May he rest in peace.”
His long-held popularity can be seen in his daily horoscopes, which remains one of the most read features in el Nuevo Herald, and his yearly prognostications that also gained a loyal English language following.
Growing up in Miami, many residents remember staying still and silent while Mercado shared his wisdom in his televised predictions. Many took notes on his rituals and performed them before the new year began.
These customs served as inspiration for Matt Kuscher, who earlier this year opened a Hialeah-themed bar named La Cocina Cocteleria, at 1000 E 16th St.
The bar’s bathroom for women shows off Mercado’s face on its wallpaper and is decorated in his honor. Kuscher said that Miami residents often run straight in there to take pictures with their idol and shout with excitement when they see it.
“Everyone in Miami knows who Walter Mercado is. He has been present in most of our lives, and I think we were lucky to have him for so many years,” Kuscher said.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Mercado “spread inspiration, light, and guidance to countless members of our community and beyond.”
“His legacy as an icon of hope will live on forever,” Suarez said in a tweet.
But his connections to South Florida were not all fortuitous.
In 1998, he was sued in Miami by a group of fans who said they invested in a jewelry company after Mercado’s endorsement of the beads, which were advertised as having special healing powers. The state attorney general’s office at the time accused the company, Unique Gems International Corp., of running an illegal pyramid scheme.
The president of the company was sentenced in 2003 to 14 years in prison, after authorities said Unique Gems defrauded 16,000 people in a $90 million plot. Mercado advertised the beads as providing a “cure for cancer, sexual dysfunction and poverty,” according to The Associated Press.
Mercado, who also went by Shanti Ananda, lost the rights to his name in 2010 during a legal dispute, but later settled the complaint and retrieved his rights to his name and image.
Mercado was also honored as Mr. Television by the Association of Latin Entertainment Critics of New York in 1986.
In late August this year, HistoryMiami museum honored Mercado’s influence in Latin American culture with an exhibit, Mucho, mucho amor: 50 years of Walter Mercado. The name was a nod to his closing wish to his loyal audience at the end of each segment: “A lot, a lot of love.” This was his final public appearance.
In Miami, TV show host Raúl de Molina mourned the loss of Mercado, who he said he “admired very much.”
“Our star is now in the sky,” said de Molina, who co-hosts the show El Gordo y La Flaca on Univision. “Rest in peace to one of the magic pioneers of Spanish television.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Jimena Tavel and Miami Herald staff writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report.