By: Milwaukeño Team
It is 1990-something, I am in grade school and doing my homework in the back of a record shop currently playing El Noa Noa, or was it Tiene Espinas el Rosal? It was one song or another from a very 90s song rotation that would be ever present in my father’s stores. Either way, the music finally stops, and the sound on one of the absurdly fat black Panasonic tube televisions gets turned up, Univision’s Primer Impacto is on and suddenly the room fills with overly dramatic synth intro music. Around the TV crowds the shop girls, some customers, and my mom, all anticipating what the androgynous and legendery icon in the cape had to say about their signs. By this point you know exactly who I am talking about, of course Walter Mercado. I would be a liar if I told you that I also didn’t listen in intently for what was in store for Capricorn.
To say the least, Walter Mercado was and is a true cultural icon. You are remiss to find a Latinx millennial for whom Walter Mercado does not mean something, be it a reminder of childhood, the first glimpse of representation in the media, or even as the butt of crass old Tío jokes or the casual memes you run into on the internet nowadays. Walter Mercado meant a lot of things to a lot of people, that is why I was so excited when I first caught a glimpse of the trailer for “Mucho Mucho Amor ” the new Netflix documentary about the life of Walter Mercado…and to top it off one the directors of the film, Cristina Constantini, is from Milwaukee!
We reached out to Cristina Costantini to chat about her work on this film as well as her experience as a Latina Filmmaker.
Mkñ: Where are you from and how did Walter play a role in your life growing up?
Cristina: I was Born and raised in Milwaukee, on the East Side. My dad is from Argentina and my mom is from Janesville, WI. My parents own a furniture company called La Lune Collection where they make rustic furniture. I grew up being babysat by my grandma a lot, her name is Yolanda and we would go to her house in West Allis a lot to hang out and I have a lot of affections for those memories that I have as a kid. My brothers, who are older than I am, were often playing (outside) while I was often with my grandmother. She taught me how to cook, she taught me a lot of fun things and would play with me but oftentimes we would be watching Univision or sometimes it would be in the background while she was cooking or as we were playing. Then I remember when Walter would come on, every afternoon, that was a real moment where everyone would kind of shut up and watch Walter. I remember watching Walter and just being obsessed and captivated by his incredible capes, his presence, and his aura. But more than anything his ability to know the future. I would ask myself, who is this magician and why isn’t he in any of the other English language channels? For me he was kind of like Oprah or Mr. Rogers with a little bit of Big Bird mixed in and dressed as Liberace. So I loved him! I thought he was fabulous and the most magnificent thing I have ever seen! My grandma would watch and always listened even though I do not think she believed in astrology, but she would listen just in case. My grandpa also was not a believer but was also always captivated and would pretend not to listen. So, my love for Walter is tied up for my love for my grandmother and those days (growing up as a child).
Mkñ: Before your first major film, you worked as a journalist for many years covering many stories related to the immigrant community, why was this an important topic for you ?
Cristina: Yes. You know, growing up in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the country, I think gave me a fascination with the divide and understanding between the races and between cultures. I went to Gold Meir for elementary school where the white population was the minority and I was surrounded by kids from every different culture and I loved it! And the I transferred out and went to University School of Milwaukee which is mostly white, mostly very privileged, and the division between the city of Milwaukee was striking to me and I really became fascinated with the idea of trying to tell our stories to other people, trying to tell our stories for ourselves but also trying to foster the kind of empathy and understanding between different groups of people. And so, because I spoke Spanish, I was able to connect more with the community and work on stories that were related to immigration. It was important to me to tell the stories of our immigrant communities. I was always struck by the difference between the stories you saw on Univision and the stories that you saw about immigrants and how brave and hardworking immigrants are and then the stories I was seeing in the mainstream about immigrants which were demonizing immigrant communities. So, I wanted to tell those stories and I started working at the Huffington Post, ABC News, then ABC Univision Joint Venture and I worked 7 or 8 years doing hard investigative immigration related stories mostly. Then I needed a change of phase, so I pitched a documentary to Univision called Science Fair, which was about the international high school science fair, in which I competed when I was in High School. I always wanted to make a featured documentary and a corky one, I saw this movie Spellbound when I was in middle school at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee Downtown and I became obsessed with the idea of trying to tell my own version of that story.
Cristina’s first major film documentary Science Fair premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and won the Sundance festival’s very first Favorite Award. The documentary also received the Festival Favorite award at the South by Southwest Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy at the 40th News and Documentary Emmy Awards competition.
Science Fair was featured as the main opening night film for the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival. Cristina attended the screening to share her work with the city that saw her grow: “It was really fun! I love Milwaukee so much; it was so formative for me and it is really fun to be able to share it and to have it open in the Milwaukee film festival was incredible!” Said Cristina. “I definitely miss Milwaukee!”
Mkñ: What is one of your favorite spots you miss or foods you like to eat in Milwaukee?
Cristina: You know, whenever I go back I ask my parent’s to take us to Three Brothers Serbian restaurant, I always want to go because I love the ambiance and I love that it hasn’t changed from when I used to live there and I just love their Burek, I haven’t found Burek as good as theirs anywhere else.
Also, I love Antigua Restaurant which (fun fact) has in their Menu an item called “Yolanda’s Empanada” which is name after my Grandma, whose name is Yolanda and who taught Citlatli Mendieta (owner of Antigua) how to make these Argentinian empanadas with my Grandmas own recipe. So, this is my number one favorite place and then Three Brothers is my second favorite.
After Science Fair, her next film project would focus on the life of Latino icon Walter Mercado. Cristina, along with co-director Kareem Tabsch and producer Alex Fumero, had their own childhood connection to Walter Mercado growing up and shared the same interest in making a film that would feature the untold story about the legendary Astrologer. The trio teamed up and for over two years followed Walter at his home in Puerto Rico, capturing the essence of his personal life. The Documentary explores the legacy of Walter Mercado, his upbringings, success, and mysterious disappearance from the public eye. It is a celebration of his life and his long life message of love and peace.
Mkñ: How was your experience getting to know Walter and working so close with such a legendary icon?
Cristina: It was incredible, at the beginning he was an icon of our childhood and then he kind of converted into some form of a family member, he was like an uncle or a Tio Abuelo, a very fabulous member of my family. I think that you can see as the film progresses that it becomes more intimate. At first, he did not want us to film anything intimate, he just wanted to be the Walter that you have seen on camera for 30-50 years. But then as we continued to film, he became more and more comfortable with us. He would let us film in his bedroom and he let us into what is actually a secret wing of his house, there is a glass mirror with a secret door and that is where he actually lives, behind that, and the rest of the house is kind of a set that looks like a place where someone might live but is not actually where Walter would spend his time. So that was very interesting.
Mkñ: What two words would you use to describe how you will remember your experience with Walter?
Cristina: Well first I would describe him as “Hilarious.” One thing I did not know about Walter (prior meeting him) before is that he was so funny and all of us on our team love to laugh! You can probably tell from the documentary that we found him very hilarious. He would do anything he could to make us laugh, he was always more concerned about everybody else in the room than he was of his own wellbeing or with himself. Everything he said was flirtatious and hilarious, you know in the film when we asked him “Well are you are not telling me you are a virgin” he responds “The only one in town” and his delivery is great, his timing, he was 88 years old but he was so quick to respond!
And then the second word would be “Love.” I know we felt his love and he did everything he could to make us feel special, to make everyone else feel special and I think I learned a lot from that, the importance of value, the people around you and being thankful for everybody. He was uniquely selfless in that sense, although he loved himself, I think he always loved other people more, con “Mucho Mucho Amor.”
Mkñ: Why is Walter’s Legacy so important to Latinos and to the LGBT community?
Cristina: You know, I think Walter gave hope to a lot of people. If I went back and watched all of the horoscopes again, even though I am not a believer in astrology, every message that he had gave a meaningful sense of “even if yesterday was hard, tomorrow is going to be a better day.” And I think for an immigrant community, a group of people who left their lives, who left their friends and family, who came to a new country where they didn’t understand anything and barely spoke the language, who are working really hard to make ends meet, I think that meaningful message is very important and necessary still today, these are hard times now. So I think Walter, for the immigrant community represents this hope and love that we all live and need in our lives.
And I think for the LGBT community, although he did not come out in a sense most people talk about coming out, my co-director Kareem who is part of the LGBT community, says that “although Walter wasn’t out, he showed us who he was on television every single day” and for a lot of young people from the queer genre community, seeing Walter having a place on TV meant that there was space for them in our culture, which is often a machista and homophobic culture. So Walter really inspired many to be themselves too. I think Walter opened that visibility for the LGBT community and like my co-director always said “You know if my family can love Walter so much, maybe they can also love me.” And so I think the visibility that Walter represented is incredibly important.
Mkñ: Has your grandma watched the documentary?
Cristina: Well my grandma, who is 90, is currently living in a retiring community and has not been able to see the documentary yet because of COVID-19, nobody has been able to visit and show it to her, but she called me the other day and said that she has a friend who has a granddaughter who is a lawyer and whenever they talk she has nothing to say because to her a lawyer is, in her mind, the best that you can be, but now that I have a film on Netflix she says that she can brag also and that at least for this last week she has won “the granddaughter competition” at the retiring community, so she is very proud! And you know, our film is dedicated to all the grandmothers in the world and my grandma is very happy.
Mkñ: Why do you think it is important to have more Latino stories and representation in Hollywood and in the TV industry?
Cristina: I think there is a very scarce representation of Latinos in mainstream media, it is often times that we are “narcos” or “poor immigrants” on the border and there is very little else and I think Walter was so out of the box not only for Latino culture but for every culture. So, I think that celebrating him also celebrates the complexity of our culture, that we are more than just one thing, that we have many different forms and many of them are very fabulous and fun! And I think it allows us to be more complex in the idea of the mainstream. I think we have so many stories to tell that have not been told, so we need more Latino filmmakers. If the world’s history is told just through the view of a very limited group of people, (like just) white men, it is going to be boring and not enough to represent the many cultures that exist. So I hope that there are many more Latino filmmakers in the future and if anybody who is reading this is a filmmaker or filmmaker of color, I would encourage them to tell our stories, our own stories… there is space for all of us in the world of film-making!
Mkñ: What Is the message you expect the audience will take from watching this documentary?
Cristina: Right now I think we live in a time when there is so much division and hatred, there are so many so-called leaders who are eager to remind us of why we should hate each other. I think Walter’s message of learning, of understanding empathy and love, is very much needed now. And so I hope that the film can bring a little bit of happiness, a little bit of love and nostalgia back into people’s lives.
Mucho Mucho Amor is currently available for streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Do you have special memories of Walter Mercado on TV, radio, or newspaper?
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