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What happened when a writer stumbled upon a famous Puerto Rican astrologer's capes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Walter Mercado enchanted viewers with his astrological readings and flamboyant capes for decades on Spanish-language television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTER MERCADO: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMON: Walter Mercado died in 2019, but his memory lives on in the hearts of his fans and in a Puerto Rican shopping mall. Writer Edgar Gomez came across a trove of Walter Mercado's clothes and accessories there this summer, including capes, perfumes, brooches and so much more. They kept going back and wrote about it in "De Los" in the Los Angeles Times. Edgar Gomez joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

EDGAR GOMEZ: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so honored to be here to talk about Walter Mercado.

SIMON: Well, first, how did all this this treasure trove wind up at a mall in Puerto Rico?

GOMEZ: So I can tell you about the shop and the shopkeeper who I spoke to on one of my visits. His name is Tony Tafanelli (ph), and he used to actually be Walter's fish tank cleaner. And while doing that, he became good friends with a family, especially Walter's nieces, who after Walter passed away, they were left to handle his estate. And because they knew Tony had this antique shop at the mall, they were like, oh, will you help us sell some of these items?

SIMON: What's in this treasure trove?

GOMEZ: The first time I went into the shop, it felt like I was breaking into Walter's bedroom or something. It felt like an invasion of privacy almost because it literally had a bunch of his clothes, again, rings, his spiritual texts, perfumes still in their plastic wrapping. It felt very personal and intimate, which is really what drew me to it and what I appreciated about being there, 'cause it felt like an immersive experience.

SIMON: Well, help us understand what Walter Mercado meant growing up to you and to so many others, for that matter.

GOMEZ: I was introduced to him in the '90s, when he was on this daily news program called "Primer Impacto." And it's this really dramatic new show where they basically highlight the most shocking, sensational stories from all over the world. And pretty much after, like, 20 minutes of watching the show, you like, do not want to leave your house 'cause it puts, like, the fear of the world in you.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOMEZ: But then Walter would come on - he had an astrology segment - and he would be sitting on a gilded throne, and there'd be smoke machines going behind him, and he'd have, like, gold rings on all of his fingers, and he'd wave them in the air to hypnotize you. And it was, like, a relief from all of the bleak news that you just saw. He would tell you that you were special, that you mattered, and he would just make you feel important. And so I think a lot of Latinx people really, like, needed to hear that.

On a personal level, I knew that there was something different about me, and I recognized that difference in Walter. The show would come on, and my grandma would be watching Walter on TV, and I would be watching her sort of like, OK, I guess she's cool with a man in, like, makeup and jewels and all this. Maybe that means that I can do that. Maybe that means she's going to be cool with me. And so on a personal level, he's sort of served as a stand-in for my queerness.

SIMON: Yeah. I gather you ended up buying a brooch.

GOMEZ: On one of my last visits, the shopkeeper approached me, and we just got to talking, and he was like, do you want to touch any of these things that are behind the glass? I was like, yes, I want to see this brooch that I'd had my eye on for a while. It is this ruby brooch, and it's in the shape of a flower. And he let me see it, and I held it, and I just got goosebumps. He ended up selling it to me at a discount. I got it for $40, and now it's just, like, a little bit of Walter that I can carry around with me.

SIMON: Have your eye on anything else?

GOMEZ: I mean, my fantasy is to have a cape. I'm gradually saving up for that. Hopefully after this comes out, people don't rush and buy all of the capes or at least save me one.

SIMON: I hope you get the cape you really want.

GOMEZ: Yeah, one day. I'm saving up. Or I might just, like, sneak in at night and steal it.

SIMON: Edgar Gomez, author of the book "High-Risk Homosexual." Thank you so much for being with us.

GOMEZ: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERCADO: Mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho amore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.