Neoliberalism and orientalism in Puerto Rico: Walter Mercado's queer spiritual capital.
"As the writings of Western homosexuals reveal, the Orient configured on the body of the Westerner's desire is not only feminine but at times masculine or even a combination of both." --A PASSAGE TO THE SELF, ELLIS 2005--
IN THIS ESSAY I BEGIN TO ESTABLISH A LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN HISTORICAL CONTEXT FOR THINKING ABOUT THE SOURCES, PERFORMANCE, AND RECEPTION OF THE CONTEMPORARY WHITE (1) PUERTO RICAN QUEER ASTROLOGER AND TELEVISION PERSONALITY, WALTER MERCADO (B. 1932), KNOWN OFFICIALLY SINCE OCTOBER 2010, WHEN HE BROKE OFF HIS CONTRACT WITH UNIVISION, AS "SHANTI ANANDA" (OR "PEACE EVERLASTING" IN SANSKRIT). To accomplish this, I explore more than a century of a Latin American (and United States) fascination with the kind of sabiduria oriental (Oriental wisdom)--astrology, reincarnation, tantric knowledge--to which Mercado's performances appeal, beginning with the mid-nineteenth-century arrival in Latin America, and especially Puerto Rico, of powerful esoteric belief systems like Theosophy and Kardecian Scientific Spiritism.
Mercado's queer sexuality is an open secret, of the kind other Latin American figures, such as Gabriela Mistral, have managed so well that it becomes part of their working persona. Here I show that Mercado's queerness is of a piece with his ownership of (Oriental) "spiritual capital," and that both depend on the ambiguously discursive nature of a Puerto Rican queerness (2) and a more generally Latin American Orientalism. Mercado's shaping of his persona must walk a fine line: Orientalism can signify to a Latin American/Latino public a sophisticated and exotic taste, knowledge, and style, just as it has also historically gestured toward the decadent, drug-ridden and perverse (homo)sexuality of Oriental peoples; if done well, the performance of Orientalism can orient, so to speak, queerness toward its more positive side. Thus, part of the success of Mercado's performances as "Walter" is not merely his ability through the years to market an ever more flamboyant and extravagant persona. More importantly, his success as a publicly flamboyant man in Puerto Rico and beyond is also due to his broad gestures toward that Oriental and ancient wisdom which itself has been part of conversations about American national identity, race, and sexuality for more than a century and a half. Such a history means that many urban Latin Americans--and U.S. Latinos/as as well--would recognize and be familiar, even comfortable, with Mercado's use of the lexicon of esoteric and Asian beliefs. Indeed, as sociologist of religion Hugh Urban has noted of "New Religious Movements," such as the late twentieth-century conglomeration of ideas broadly known as "New Age," "Some ... have argued that the New Religious Movements are really not 'new' at all; rather they are simply the latest versions of a long tradition of alternative spirituality in America" (Urban 1996: 162). This is equally true of a long tradition of alternative spiritualities in Latin America and the Hispanophone Caribbean.
In this article, I will first introduce Mercado as he is today: raro, queer icon of sabiduria oriental and cursi (or culto, depending on your perspective) taste in Latin America and the Latina/o U.S., at once revered and (usually gently) made fun of. Next, I connect Mercado's queer esoteric image with a Puerto Rican and more generally Latin American Orientalism. This is an Orientalism that owes some of its most important images and ideas to two sources: Kardecian Scientific Spiritism and Latin America's more general engagement with Orientalism, modernity, and homosexuality via the important influence of modernista thought.
I will also pay attention in particular to Raquel Romberg's work on how Spiritism and its attendant influences have moved from the milieu of liberal elite and lettered Puerto Ricans to a much more widespread, popular place in Puerto Rican brujeria and curanderismo. Part of this move is due to Puerto Rico's status as a colonial possession of the U.S., which has made available, to late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century espiritismo/brujeria and curanderismo, more eclectic religious objects and beliefs--via Puerto Rico's insertion into the late modern global economy.
Finally, from brujeria, I backtrack to the mid-twentieth century (rebirth) of general Latin American interest in esoteric and Orientalist ideas around the time that Mercado himself was transforming from a dancer, stage and television actor, and radionovela star to a rising astrologer both on radio and television, with special reference to Mercado's relationship to the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I also discuss the place of "spiritual capital" and tastemaking in the ways Mercado represents and markets his Orientalist persona both in Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Queer Orientalism in Latin America
Edward Said's Orientalism has allowed scholars to think about the ways that the web of imaginings about the "East," or the Orient, are just that--imaginary; and it has long been argued that Orientalism in this sense functions as a tool both for colonizing and for domesticating the colonized. On the side of the colonizer, as Said has noted, Orientalism not only serves as the "Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient," but also ensures that the defining culture can gain "in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and underground self" (Said 2003: 3). It is helpful to note here that, unlike Said's more geographically specific "Orient" of the Middle East, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Latin American and Caribbean Orientalism encompasses a larger imaginary territory. This "Oriental" terrain is shaped in part by appeals to the North African or "Moorish" influence in Spain, as well as by the influx of Chinese laborers, beginning in the 1880s, especially to Cuba but also to Mexico and Puerto Rico; Latin American fn-de-siecle modernista writer/poets were also responsible for popularizing Oriental images and ideas from China, Japan, and India. And as we will see, two strongly organized belief systems--Kardecian Spiritism and Theosophy--would influence the inclusion in a Spanish American collective cultural unconscious of an imagined Southeast Asia, made up almost entirely of an imagined India/Tibet.
No matter the geographical fantasies of Orientalism, scholarship on the gendered as well as sexualized nature of Orientalism in particular as a colonial tool has given us a wealth of discussion on intersections between colonialism, gender, homoeroticism, and Orientalism (Aldrich 2003; Ellis 2005; Moran 2005). As a discourse in the Foucauldian sense, Orientalism's very ambiguity makes it available both to the oppressed as well as the oppressors: as Robert Ellis argues, a homoerotic Orientalism could manipulate "los discursos orientalistas para desarrollar una identidad homosexual historicamente negada en las culturas occidentales" (2005: 75). (3) In this sense, the "Orient" has constituted a sometimes submerged but nevertheless important source of images and narratives both in dominant and counter-dominant conversations about colonization, modern nationhood, and the sexuality (and race) "proper" for the nation's citizens. In the case of Puerto Rico, ideas about progress and modernization embedded in mid-nineteenth-century European occult Orientalist belief systems (such as Kardecian Spiritism, as well as in Freemasonry) have at times served strong anti-colonialist, modernizing, and cultural nationalist rhetorics on the island. Indeed, albeit not focused on Orientalism, queer Puerto Rican scholar Arnaldo Cruz-Malave's work undermines the assumed polarity of Puerto Rican "colonial domination/national culture"; the assumption that a "national culture" is always in opposition to the hegemony of colonial domination has, he maintains, "obfuscated ... [the fact that] 'national culture' [has] played the part of 'sovereignty,' of hegemonic discourse" on the island itself: "'National culture' became then the discourse by which the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie, heirs to the nineteenth-century hacendado, or planter, class, sought and gained hegemony for its model of capitalist modernization within dependency" (1995: 139, 228). Following the Puerto Rican historian Quintero Rivera's analysis of the hacendado class' vision of the island as a "large Puerto Rican family" with the landed classes playing the part of the paternal head of the family (2009: 253), Cruz-Malave reads Puerto Rican "national culture" throughout the twentieth century as depending on a conservative, masculine heteronormativity, which must identify, and yet must also depend on, the effeminate "Other" within itself (1995: 230).
Writing in the context of the Orientalist "desire" of modernistas around the turn of the twentieth century, Francisco Moran asserts something of the same thing--that the presumably "decadent" and queer nature of the Oriental "representaba, ponia en peligro--y cuestionaba desde dentro--el vigor de la Nacion, en particular, y de America Latina, en general" (2005: 385). For Cruz-Malave, then, what might constitute "el peligro" at the heart of "el vigor de la Nacion" (if, as he notes, Puerto Rico can indeed have a "national culture" without a nation) is queerness: that the Puerto Rican "hegemonic discourse of national identity," put forward by noted founder-writers such as Antonio Pedreira (whose Insularismo, a study of the "psychology" of Puerto Ricans, was published in 1934) and playwright and author Rene Marques (whose plays, books and essays from the 1940s through the 1970s explored and deplored the nature of Puerto Rican colonialism), has been continually haunted by what Cruz-Malave calls "the specter of homosexuality" (1995: 228).
If this is the case, Walter's queerness "haunts" the various Puerto Rican narratives of national identity, itself carved from within a colonial dependency, in strange and ambiguous ways. His performances, and his success, are in large part a sign of Puerto Rico's imbrication with U.S. socio-political hegemony; he depends on a late capitalist global economy for his widespread fame and financial success; he is pro-statehood and anti-Communist. Yet, his performance as "Walter" can also function as part of a Puerto Rican "national" culture, much as Cruz-Malave has it. Finally, his persona locates queerness at the heart of a way of thinking about (white) Puerto Rican identity, which in part derives from his emphasis on his peninsular heritage, in part from his practice of highlighting his fair skin with a bouffant of dyed blonde hair. But most especially, Mercado inhabits a spectral but nonetheless immensely profitable Latin American Orientalist place where he himself can construct, legitimate, and hide in plain sight the "surrogate and underground self" of his own queerness, at the same time as he upholds an explicitly white, implicitly Hispanist vision of Puerto Rican national/United States identity.
The Media and the Message
Mercado's TV astrology show on Univision, (4) his appearances on other shows, his CDs and DVDs, his radio shows, books, (5) and horoscopes all promote the cultural narrative that there are certain gifted people who can, through study and spiritual labor, tap into an esoteric (or even better, occult--in the literal sense of the term as something "hidden") sabiduria oriental. For over twenty-five years, Mercado's astrological and spiritual messages via radio and television, combined with a flamboyant and charismatic persona, have been an iconic part of Latin American, Hispanophone Caribbean, and U.S. Latina/o daily life. Yet it is extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain a sense of the "real" Walter Mercado, the person behind the persona; he has learned over the years to manage his private life in such a way that we receive--at an electronic or printed distance--only what he wants us to see. Nevertheless, his charisma is such that the impression he gives of openness to his audience has made him the object of affection, as well as veneration, all over the Hispanophone world.
In fact, his status has reached the point where he has appeared (as his persona, that is, as "Walter Mercado") in several popular culture venues aimed mostly toward Puerto Ricans and Latina/os in the U.S., all of which use Mercado as a slightly tongue-in-cheek marketing gesture toward a presumably authentic Latin American/ Puerto Rican/U.S. Latina/o consuming audience. Old Navy's tenth-anniversary ad campaign in November 2003 included its first Spanish-language commercials, starring Nuyorican Erik Estrada (star of the 1978-83 show CHiPs) and Walter Mercado. (6) Also in 2003, Mercado made a cameo appearance in the film Chasing Papi (originally PapiChulo), a "Latino comedy" where three U.S. Latinas, unknowingly in love with the same papi, are also followers of Walter Mercado; it is his horoscope advice which prompts them to surprise their lover, all at once ... with predictable results. In 2008, VH1 debuted a "Hispanic" reality show called Viva Hollywood, in which Latin American and U.S. Latino/a actors vied for a part in a new Latin American telenovela; Walter again makes a cameo appearance in several of the episodes, giving advice and discussing his famous capes and outfits, of course ending each brief appearance with his famous circular gesture over the heart, the kiss blown to the audience, and with hands outstretched, his tagline: "pero con mucho, mucho, mucho amor." Indeed, by now Walter himself is his own "brand," with four perfumes designed after the four elements associated with the twelve astrological figures (unfortunately for those of us who would like to try them, they are as of now out of production; see "Perfumeland. com"). He has aroused the ire of Mexican performance artist and commentator Guillermo Gomez-Pena: "Traditionally known for our 'transgressive' behavior and our willingness to defy dogmas, cultural borders, and moral conventions, [we] performance artists must now compete in outrageousness with. Walter Mercado" (2001: 25). Finally, he has even had his portrait done (looking around 20 years old), by the famous gay photographer/artist duo Pierre & Gilles. Indeed, by now, more than a decade into the twenty-first century, Walter is instantly recognizable across Spain, Latin America, the Caribbean, and wherever in the U.S. mainland Latinos/as live, read Spanish-language newspapers, listen to the radio, and watch TV.
Walter's Spiritual Entrepreneurship
It should be clear by the above that Mercado not only signifies for many people an important spiritual advisor, but that he is a successful businessman in the fast-growing arena of global spiritual entrepreneurship--and that these two things are not necessarily seen as contradictions by his faithful audience. A significant but only recently theorized aspect of "alternative" spiritualities is the dependence on the circulation of material cultures, as well as the movement of ideas through global trade. Raquel Romberg's treatise on contemporary brujeria in Puerto Rico, Witchcraft and Welfare, comments, if briefly, on
Mercado's penchant for advocating the positive attributes of Hindu religious figures such as the elephant-headed deity Ganesha, noting that reproductions of such figures are now readily available at neighborhood botanicas (2003: 86). Describing two women at a botanica who, after hearing Mercado's discussion of Ganesha as the "opener of ways" buy one of the most expensive statues of the deity available, Romberg asserts that it is especially young, upwardly mobile Puerto Ricans who might want to "invite the newly adopted spirits to help them to climb [the social ladder] more vigorously. In particular, Western reworkings of ancient Southeast Asian ... spiritual procedures in New Age practices have been welcomed mostly by the rising middle classes as a way to enhance their social status" (Romberg 2003: 86-7). Her focus is on an accumulative attitude in the practice of brujeria in which, as she puts it,
By means of an unusual alchemy, brujos can at once be fervent Catholics, be possessed by African deities, use New Age lingo, follow the French spiritist tradition of the dead ... and act as welfare agents.... In this economic and spiritual laissez-faire space, marked by the transnational circulation of spiritual commodities and people, brujos operate as spiritual entrepreneurs. (Romberg 2003: 24-5)
Romberg locates Puerto Rico's increased access to this kind of spiritual commoditization in the explosion of global markets in the 1980s: the "transnational commodification of the spiritual world," she maintains, "has been increasing exponentially as a result of the collusion of Puerto Rico in both Spanish Catholic and American neoliberal rule" (2003: 25). Yet the "unusual alchemy" or agglutinating energy Romberg identifies in contemporary Puerto Rican brujeria since the 1980s belongs not just to African-heritage spiritual beliefs such as Santeria, but has historically long been the case; this cumulative attitude shared with mid- to late-nineteenth-century European-derived esoteric belief systems like Theosophy and Kardecean Spiritism, as well as with later twentieth-century "New Age" practices, the same willingness to incorporate spiritual "truth" in whatever religious or spiritual place it may be found. In fact, Allan Kardec thought of his Spiritism--an amalgam of secular (anti-clerical) Christianity, Druidism, spirit communication, "scientific" evolution, and the vogue (beginning in 1830s France) for Eastern ideas such as metempsychosis (reincarnation)--as a unifying system that could bring all religions into one (Sharp 2006: 175). Likewise, Mercado asserts in his 2010 El mundo secreto de Walter Mercado that it was "prophesied" that he himself would be a
universalista, que uniria con mis mensajes las religiones bajo un solo Padre, Dios Poderoso.... He sido iniciado, o bautizado, y he estudiado casi todas las religiones o sectas del mundo, incluyendo el catolicismo ... Self-Realization Fellowship, astara, rosacruces, hinduismo, budismo, sufismo, africanismo, espiritismo cientifico ... tantra, tibetanismo, tao ... gurdjieff, teosofia ... y muchas, muchas mas. (2010: 5)
The melange of spiritual knowledges, or (spiritual) "capital" in the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's sense, to which Mercado's audience understands him to have access, is not just a product of late capitalist globalization; its cumulative energy and many of its basic beliefs historically predate the handover of Puerto Rico to the U.S. in 1898. Indeed, by 1856 veladas (seances) "were in vogue at fashionable parties" on the island (Romberg 2003a: 149). Thus Puerto Rican audiences--at first, in the mid-1800s, the educated and elite, but by the beginnings of the twentieth century more popular audiences--were familiar not just with the "universalist" nature of alternative spiritual belief systems, but as time went on, with the continued and increasingly popular use of these system's ideas, images, bodily gestures, icons, and language. In other words, as Diana Taylor has outlined in The Archive and the Repertoire, both a "nonarchival system of transfer" ("the repertoire") as well as written discourses ("the archive") have become intimately recognizable parts of Puerto Rican cultural belief systems beyond the boundaries of Kardecian espiritismo, Caribbean Catholicism, or Afro-Caribbean Santeria (Taylor 2003: xvii). For example, one of the central tropes both in Kardecian espiritismo as well as in many other occult belief systems such as Theosophy, that of the evolution of the soul through reincarnation (and the concomitant idea of "karma"), has continued to thrive and to function in many different venues throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Thus Walter can write with perfect confidence that he will be understood that "En la astrologia esoterica se dice que en el alma espiritual va reencarnando en cada signo su karma individual." (I discovered through Mercado that my particular sign, Leo, had been in a past life "cruel, despota, orgulloso, avaro," but that "ahora estas evolucionando para ser un centro de luz, paz, creatividad, y amor" [Mercado 2010: 168--emphasis added]). Here again, Latin American urban audiences would be familiar and--even more importantly--comfortable with the ideas of evolutionary reincarnation and karma put forward.
Over the course of the twentieth century, such Spiritist esoteric beliefs as evolutionary reincarnation have been used first by members of the Puerto Rican elite in their plans for modernization, and then successively undermined as anti-modern superstition, reframed as a Puerto Rican "folk" practices of brujeria and curanderismo. Most importantly, these beliefs have always been a contested area for proponents of modernization from every political side on the island (Romberg 2003a). Beginning in the late 1960s, across South America and the Caribbean, practices like astrology, meditation, drug use, and ideas about reincarnation and the spirit world experienced a countercultural and, later, New Age revival--culled in part, as was Scientific Spiritism itself, from the history of the revival of interest from the 1830s through the 1940s in Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. Although, as we have seen, these practices and ideas had already had a long history of acceptance in Latin America in general, by the 1960s and 1970s the jipi (hippie) counterculture investment in some of these same practices and ideas would become (negatively) associated with an imported U.S. counterculture, itself seen as an extension of North American imperialism.
I link this complex history of faith, anti-imperialist sentiment, and modernization with Mercado's rise, in Puerto Rico in the late 1960s, to the spiritual entrepreneur he has become today. In fact, Mercado's "Age of Aquarius" brand of spirituality, which combines many of the same ideas as we saw above, belongs to this longer history of Puerto Rican interest in occult Orientalism at the same time as his performances and business practices belong to a late capitalist moment in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Although he is not a guru in the sense this word took on in the 1960s and 1970s, Mercado reflects one of his close influences, the late "guru of the rich," Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who, as Kenneth Urban notes, was
[a] wide reader, a media-conscious politician, a shrewd businessman and a brilliant propagandist ... Rajneesh had a keen sense of what would sell to his consumer market. And precisely because he had no fixed doctrine or value system, he was able to adapt his message to the changing demands of his patrons. Thus we can see his teachings shifting with shifting tastes, moving with the market, and adopting current trends of the late 1970s and 1980s.... (Urban 2000: 25--emphasis added)
The place of commodification in spiritual matters has recently caught the attention of scholars of religion, who have begun to look to sociologies of material culture, marketplaces, and class to make sense of the ways that spiritual practices have been, and are, part of the circulation of commodified goods and the negotiation of tastemaking in late capitalism. As Bradford Verter points out, the term "spiritual capital" is an expansion of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's ideas about symbolic capital to encompass "spiritual dispositions," which may be regarded as a form of cultural capital. Personal piety may be viewed as a matter of taste--in other words, as a product of social relations--and thus as a marker of status within struggles for domination in a variety of contexts. Spiritual knowledge, competencies, and preferences may be understood as valuable assets in the economy of symbolic goods. (Verter 2003: 152)
The ideological understanding of spiritual capital here links both taste and status with "spiritual knowledge, competencies, and preferences." As I have noted, the "spiritual competency" of various groups of Puerto Ricans since the late 1800s has drawn on long-established systems like Theosophy, Spiritism, brujeria, and curanderismo, and has made astrology, reincarnation, divination, and spirit communication an intimate part of Puerto Rican (popular) cultural and spiritual fabric. To one extent or another, it has been argued by scholars like Diana Taylor and Raquel Romberg, that these alternative or occult practices have contributed to how Puerto Ricans have thought about colonialism and modernity, political and cultural sovereignty, and within those terms, about sexuality and race.
In Mercado's case, spiritual capital has been shaped by careful attention to the marketplace of spiritual goods and practices, which by the 1970s had been closely interwoven with humanistic and therapeutic psychological ideas and terminology (Palmer and Bird 1992). This includes, besides his occult Orientalism, constant gestures on his part toward a secularized, therapeutic Christianity symbolized by assurances to his audience, for example, that each one of them is the "hijo perfecto.... [del] Cristo en tu interior" ("Guia para una vida mejor"). His self-shaping also includes gestures toward the currents of contemporary New Age discourse, including his own physical appearance (his fair skin and blondness), dress, sense of style and decor, and finally, toward an exquisitely modulated yet obviously queer sensibility.
In his public persona, Mercado makes reference, both overtly and implicitly, to the many avenues of Oriental wisdom to which he has had access: first and foremost, to an astrology whose ancient roots reside in an India (and, more subtly, to a Moorish heritage) itself imagined, as is often the case in the West, not so much as a country or culture but as a magical land, as he briefly describes it in El mundo secreto de Walter Mercado:
Cada instante que pase en la India, y cada vez que he ido a ella, he tenido experiencias maravillosas e inolvidables ... en ese maravilloso pais ... donde a partir de mi primera experiencia alli, mi vida sea convertido en una diaria y constante labor de captacion de los milagros que suceden a mi alrededor.... (2010: 22-3)
Mercado's widely published spiritual bona fides include Asian and Southeast Asian academic titles, such as Universal Teacher (inducted in 1969 in Mumbai, India, shortly before Rajneesh located to Poona in the early 1970s); a doctorate in Divinity from the International Philo-Byzantine Academy & University (which actually exists, at least on the Web); and a doctorate in Reiki Divine Healing from Tokyo. Until recently, Mercado's daily Univision horoscope show enshrined him in a setting, which, to Western eyes, indicated the spiritual aura of Southeast Asia. During one episode, Walter sits between two large golden figures of Ganesha, the Hindu divinity known as Remover of Obstacles, while the background shows a smaller Shiva backlit against dark blue, draped sheer curtains. The design of his many robes, for which he is (justly) famous, gestures toward Catholic liturgical garments as well as the robes of an Oriental "master," and are lushly colored and embroidered.
But all these material embellishments to Mercado's persona came in the late 1960s. It was at this time that Mercado made his first and fateful pilgrimage to sit at the feet of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh near Mumbai, India, where he was inspired by the "Oriental wisdom" of Rajneesh, past master of charisma and spiritual commodification, and from whom, as we will see, Mercado learned some valuable lessons.
As noted above, an emphasis on a forward-looking progress (with roots in ancient wisdom) has been at the heart of spiritualities that have embraced some form of Orientalist occultism in Spanish-speaking America since the mid-1800s; even the 1960s and 1970s countercultural uses of Orientalism tried to put forward a different, utopic future. The circulation of texts, images, and ideas between Europe and Latin America that so characterized the push toward modernization and nation in the early twentieth century became, by the last quarter of the twentieth century, part of a larger, more global arena. This was an arena where discourses of modernity and progress still held sway but where the growth of global trade meant that spiritual goods, discourses and counter discourses of nation and culture circulated and combined, in sometimes strange and startling ways, along with the complex struggles and negotiations that characterized Latin American responses to U.S. cultural imperialism.
Rajneesh, Santa Barbara, and the Hippie "Barbaric Invasion"
Beginning in the 1950s and culminating in the late 1970s, the political and social upheavals playing out across the Americas have been and continue to be the object of an enormous amount of scholarship. (7) What interests me here, in terms of Walter Mercado, is the social and cultural milieu of Puerto Rico in the mid- to late-1960s, particularly its responses to the perceived U.S. mainland "invasion" of hippies. This is also the moment when Mercado begins to appear as the icon that people know him today. At the same time as Walter emerged with his new performative persona, Puerto Rico was undergoing a series of social upheavals both cultural and economic, which in turn necessitated a redefining of what Puerto Rican "culture" meant: as Cruz-Malave reminds us, "It was not until the early 1970s that, as a result of the crisis of Puerto Rico's economic model of development, the unitary concept of a Puerto Rican culture, which had underwritten it, began to appear as a more restricted (and restrictive) term." (1998: 228). This was also a time of student political unrest, as well as more revolutionary movements: as Ayala and Bernabe put it in Puerto Rico in the American Century, "The rise of new student, labor, antiwar, environmental, and independence currents in the late 1960s and the economic sea change of the early 1970s" (2009: 247) had its counterpart in Nuyorican social movements such as the Young Lords, as well as in a Nuyorican literature, which often "talked back" not just to white imperialism but also to Puerto Rican disdain for migrants to the mainland. Activism against the war in Vietnam was growing, and the 1959 Cuban revolution had already radicalized a number of historians and intellectuals on the island, who were also responding to intellectuals of the international New Left such as Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon (Ayala and Bernabe 2009: 248). At the same time, many homosexual Puerto Ricans who wrote from their queer identities were in "sexile" on the mainland, where, from "the belly of the beast" as Jose Marti called it, they were also writing back to Puerto Rico, conceiving of "this uncovering of their sexual self as a search for a free and authentic national space" (Cruz-Malave 1988: 227--emphasis added).
And then ... there were the hippies (Adams 2005; Barr-Melej 2006; Zolov 2004; Zolov 1999). (8) Whether they were from the mainland or island-grown, they were perceived on virtually all sides--from the most conservative to those ideologically to the left--as representing not just the invasion of a culturally decadent U.S. imperialism, but also of a threatening (homo)sexuality.
In Puerto Rican letters, psychedelic hippie (homo)sexuality was portrayed with perhaps the most ambivalent loathing of all by Rene Marques, in his last book, La mirada, written in 1973. This novella was written a few years after Mercado produced his own televised astrology show, touting what might seem to some to be a countercultural, even hippie appeal to Oriental wisdom. An odd book by any standards, La mirada won a literary prize in Spain in 1974 but was not published there because of "obscene" passages; it was finally published in Puerto Rico in 1976. The dates matter, because Marques wrote this book in 1973, from the point of view of, as Efrain Barradas and other scholars have shown, "a kind of left-wing conservatism--of a paternalistic sort" (Cruz-Malave 1998: 230). According to Cruz-Malave, in Marques' texts homosexuality,
through its identification with colonialism and the "barbarian invasion" ... becomes ... the collective condition of all Puerto Ricans, indeed of all colonials ... [La mirada is] our inability to achieve nationhood as the story of the growing pains of a pato or maricon. (1998: 230)
This despite, or possibly because, of the fact that Marques himself was a (closeted) gay man. In La mirada, the hippies who appear to ravage the purity of Puerto Rico's natural beauty are explicitly described as "invaders": the narrator of La mirada, a "farm boy" (read: from a jibaro family) first describes hippies in detail at the university, which he attends for a semester: he is overly "aware of their clothes so affectedly threadbare and not-so-affectedly asexual [unisex?]: tight jeans ... long hair not very clean, and here and there an afro ... and sandals, no socks, and dirty feet" (Marques 1883: 23). These hippies become much more threatening, and overtly sexual, once they "invade" the beach below his father's farm, which prompts the main character to describe how the beach has been defiled:
the tiny beach, always so ... intimate, so 'theirs,' so clean.... And now this! Torn, dirty Boy Scout tents; tin and cardboard lean-tos; Coke bottles all over the place; piles of garbage; black remains of bonfires ... ashes and a miniature, Lilliputian humanity ... moving around naked and without any meaning. (Marques 1983: 47)
That the narrator joins them by taking their drugs (mushrooms and LSD), ending up in prison with them, and even having queer sex with them--something his father had already warned him about--seems to be a surreal rite of passage toward the narrator's own realization that he must, like Puerto Rico itself, "navigate forever toward paternity" (Cruz-Malave 1998: 235)--particularly since, as it turns out in the story, the hippies are actually native to the island itself: they are Puerto Rican, not "invaders" from the US.
An important historical context both for Mercado and Marques was the first Woodstock-like rock festival in Puerto Rico, organized in 1972 by white North Americans, and called the "Festival del Mar y Sol" (or Marysol Festival). Marques' ambivalent loathing for countercultural youth and queer sex inscribed in La mirada was undoubtedly derived, especially in his depiction of the hippies on the beach, from the newspaper headlines about the festival, which lasted three days (April 1-3) and was widely considered a disaster. The beach was littered for miles, many mainland whites were stranded in Puerto Rico with no way to get home, there were four deaths, several rapes, and the festival organizer was pursued by Puerto Rican police. The headlines in Puerto Rican newspapers, especially El Nuevo Dia read like nineteenth-century scandal pages, such as "La orgia escandalosa del Mar y Sol" (The Scandalous Orgy of Mar y Sol). On April 1, the paper stated that the festival was spread over "429 cuerdas de inmoralidad"; accompanying pictures were of long-haired, dirty, sunburned, stoned hippie men and women, and a dirty, trash-strewn beach. A long-haired man with a naked baby strapped to his chest was shown in the April 3rd edition of another newspaper, El Mundo, along with pictures of nude bathers, especially women, at the outdoor showers, surrounded by an audience of (clothed) Puerto Rican men (Mar y Sol Festival). (9)
Given the widespread public loathing for these hippies--with their loose (homo) sexual morals, tight pants or nudity, drug use, Mahavishnu Orchestras, and Indian incense--how did Walter Mercado, at the beginning of his television career as a psychic and astrologist of clearly queer, Orientalist bent, navigate the unsafe waters of Puerto Rican panic over homosexuality, hippies, and the counterculture? The answer, in part, is that Mercado was very careful not to invoke an explicitly "hippie" aura, even though he did what any self-respecting hippie of the time would do, that is, go to India in order to, as Time Magazine opined in 1967, "[reject] prevailing sexual mores.... [and acquire] a penchant for Oriental mysticism on the order of Zen and the Veda" (1967: 6). In fact, Mercado would use his late 1960s pilgrimage to Baghwan Shree Rajneesh in India to come back to Puerto Rico authenticated in the spiritual thought of the countercultural moment. In spite of seemingly similar values and beliefs (universal love, the coming of the "Age of Aquarius," South Asian practices), Mercado had a clear grasp of how not to look or behave if he wanted to be a successful spiritual entrepreneur in late 1960s Puerto Rico: he did not do drugs (at least in public), his hair was longish, but always carefully coiffed and never "not very clean," and his increasingly flamboyant attire was the opposite of too-tight jeans and sandals. His theatrical, melodramatic queerness was in fact the opposite of hippie, mostly heterosexual, experimentation. Instead, Mercado used his experiences in India with Rajneesh for the beginnings of his own ideas about how to dress and comport himself so as to avoid evoking a jipi aura, instead gesturing toward what most Latin Americans would recognize as an "authentic" Southeast Asian Orientalism.
Indeed, when Mercado first went to visit Rajneesh in India, he tells us that Rajneesh gave him his (Rajneesh's) clothes (presumably the standard garb of most Indian men: unbleached cotton robe, pants, and leather sandals--Rajneesh's robes get more elegant over time but never approach the level of Mercado's). Since Walter is very insistent on this point, and since Rajneesh was known for his oddities of behavior, this anecdote may be true. In any event, Walter began to think about how to translate the (at that time) instantly recognizable, if not particularly fancy, robes of Rajneesh into something both more "Oriental" in the Western and Latin American sense, and more (queerly) eye-catching for his own self-presentation.
At the same time, in the late 1960s, Rajneesh was becoming known for his radical methods of spiritual enlightenment and his advocacy of a neo-Tantra, which preached sensual and material fulfillment at the same time. (10) Although Walter still does not hesitate to name Rajneesh as one of his "Masters" (for example, in his 2010 book, El mundo secreto de Walter Mercado), in the late 1960s and early 1970s he clearly needed to begin to reshape the more infamous and shocking aspects of Rajneesh's teachings for his Puerto Rican audience, both on and off the island. He did this in part by mixing Rajneesh's teachings with an emphasis--as with Kardecian Spiritism and popular espiritismo--on a secularized but nevertheless recognizably Catholic Christianity (Jesus is another one of his "Masters," according to El mundo secreto). As Walter describes his first spiritual journey to India in the first chapter of El mundo, he is careful to emphasize the ways in which his prayers are addressed specifically to the Catholic Santa Barbara. Here we see the tendency to choose spiritual figures and symbols that the seeker feels will benefit him or her as an individual: Santa Barbara the Catholic saint, who "Es uno de los santos de mi devocion, junto a Ganesha"; and Chango, the Santeria orisha (god) (in Santeria, both saint and orisha are associated with lightning and violent occurrences). Mercado narrates that he appealed to Santa Barbara for aid in various difficult or even dangerous situations, and that each time his prayers were answered in seemingly miraculous ways (Mercado 2010: 9-18). In the same way that Allan Kardec made espiritismo palatable to a Catholic audience by combining a secularized Christianity with scientific and Orientalist discourses, Mercado picked up on Rajneesh's and others' uses of "Tantric" discipline to combine an Oriental, but rather vague and less physically oriented Tantric discourse, with a secularized Catholicism, making numerous references in his writing and his horoscopes to saints, to Christ and to "Dios el Todopoderoso."
Yet in El mundo secreto, especially on the subject of love, Mercado also critiques Judeo-Christian teachings for people's sexual and romantic problems, calling, for example, for the treatment of sex education "con naturalidad restandole todo lo feo y pecaminoso que revistio este tema durante siglos por la condenacion judio-cristiano" (2010: 347). What he does begin to learn, then, beginning in 1969 but continuing into the present, from other "spiritual entrepreneurs" such as Rajneesh is that a careful shaping of the idea that he owns a certain kind of spiritual capital--an idea which resonates with Western neo-Tantric philosophies--means that he must package and commodify it for the benefit of his audience. As Urban notes of the fad for all things "Tantric" that has swept through New Age marketing, "Indeed, Tantrism could be said to represent the quintessential religion for late twentieth-century consumer capitalist society. It would be difficult to imagine a more appealing form of religiosity for this new kind of capitalist society ..." (2000: 271).
Thus, as we have seen, as a businessman rather than a guru (Rajneesh was both), Mercado has learned from paying close attention to the behavior and business practices of people like Rajneesh and then re-framing those lessons for his own much more conservative audience. Most important is his departure from earlier spiritual movements that emphasized the breakdown and subsequent "transformation" of the person (Rajneesh's practices and the Erhard Seminar Training, better known as EST, were examples of this). As Susan Palmer and Frederick Bird have shown in their "Therapy, Charisma and Social Control in the Rajneesh Movement," Rajneesh and other "gurus" of the 1960s through the 1980s had been influenced by, and incorporated into their teachings and methods, certain images and ideas from humanistic psychology. Rajneesh's appropriations of "self-actualization" techniques often tended toward the violent, self-negating and even capricious side, working to "break down" the student in order to create a "new person," and relying on his famous charisma to force his followers to obey his orders, no matter how bizarre (for instance, ordering them to chant a mantra of "fuck you, fuck you, fuck you") (Palmer and Bird 1992: 75-6). Again, such a negative approach would serve neither Mercado's own sexual self-presentation nor his professional career; thus, as he has polished his charisma over the years, he has oriented his message not toward an unquestioning obedience such as characterized Rajneesh's approach, but toward the positive messages of alternative spiritualities as well as of humanistic psychology: that of amor, positive visualization and actualization, the worthiness of the self, and tolerance (including tolerance toward others, a central message to his audience, which implicitly includes his own queer sexuality). Much of his emphasis on (self) love comes in large part from the positive discourses of the therapeutic self-realization of the Human Potential Movement (HPM), which also emphasized that one could be materially as well as spiritually happy:
Since at least the early 1970s, this "world-affirming" side of the New Age had begun to emerge in movements like ... the Human Potential Movement; and it came into full flower during the power generation of the 1980s, with ... a wide array of gurus promoting the union of spirituality and financial success through books and videos.... (Urban 2000: 278) Mercado's language, particularly in a book like El mundo secreto, is without a doubt indebted to the HPM, itself traceable back to intellectuals like Aldous Huxley and William James and psychologists like Abraham Maslow. As does HPM (Anderson 2004), Mercado advises his readers to "awaken" to the world around them, propounding the belief that awakening to the divine on an individual and global consciousness level could in fact usher in a new age:
Todo lo que aqui expongo sobre la actitud sexual sana, al igual que la liberacion feminina y masculina ... la liberacion gay y la busqueda de la libertad del alma son reflejos de ... la Era de Acuario.... En mis estudios de budismo, gurdjieff, zen, yoga, y gestalt, se enfatiza primordialmente el "estar despierto," vivir en el aqui.... El que ve a Dios en todos, es Dios mismo. (2010: 347-8, 483-4, 488)
The Queer Charisma of Whiteness
In spite of the fact that the Chicana/o queer art group A.L.A.R.M.A. (Artists in Los Angeles Reconceptualizing Media Arts) declares in its "Manifest(o) Destiny" that "Walter Mercado [is] our spiritual advisor" and claims that they will "rescue camp from the sole property and fetish of white queer sensibility" (Gonzalez et al. 1998: 81-2), it is undoubtedly the "darkening" aspect of U.S. imaginings about Puerto Rican color that leads them to imply that Walter is not white. Walter's camp (if camp it is) is nothing if not dependent on the privileges of a "white queer sensibility."
As sexuality is never separate from race, Puerto Rican cultural assumptions, even unconscious ones, about the more "evolved" nature of whiteness--aided in part by the legacy from Kardecian Spiritism, in part by post-1898 elite reconstructions of the jibaro as both white (descended from Spanish settlers) and as "the" essential Puerto Rican, and North American white supremacy--combine in the appeal for Puerto Ricans of Mercado's performance of a charismatic whiteness. Walter subtly plays up his "European" heritage; his publicity often notes that his mother was from Spain, and that he was born in a boat halfway between Spain and Puerto Rico--as Efrain Barradas points out, in the Caribbean the appeal to Spain "le ha servido de simbolo de estatus" (2005: 105).
The sociologist Max Weber identifies charisma as a "certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural ... or ... exceptional powers or qualities" (quoted in Urban 1996: 163). Anyone who has watched Walter will probably acknowledge the charisma of his performance as "Walter": soothing yet authoritative and wise, his attitude implies strongly that he is speaking directly to, and cares directly about, the individual viewer. His paleness frames his so-called "feminine" characteristics; smooth skin carefully stretched over high cheekbones by plastic surgery, his full but not bee-stung mouth, careful blonde coif (as a younger man, he had dark hair, but has been dying it blonde for years) and small but knowing smile give him the look of a charming, well-bred woman of a certain class and age, one who has the resources to take very good care of herself.
I suggest here that Walter's obvious queerness is "closeted" not just by his access to spiritual capital, but by a whiteness which he has leveraged into class status. Revisiting Oscar Montero's discussion of the closet in Latin American writing, in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century nationalistic modernismo, "Particularly in a Latin American context ... a reading of homosexual desire must also be a reading of homophobia"; thus, modernista readings of European decadence and "implicit or explicit sexual deviance" were "consistently and deliberately ambiguous" (1997: 220-1). Montero maintains that "the very moment of emerging European same-sex discourses, is also the moment when the Latin American closet is given its most lasting shape" (1997: 221). Among other things, this closet, at the end of the nineteenth century, takes the shape of the inner space of the Latin American psyche, as Montero puts it, "filled with the prestigious images of European culture ... [forming] the study, the boudoir, and often the sickroom" (that is, heteronormative modernista readings of Orientalist or decadent "perversions" were often traced in terms of illness or disease) (1997: 221). But when we glimpse Walter's inner sanctum--Univision. com's TV Notas website devoted a page in August 2008 titled "El hogar mistico de Walter Mercado"--we have the sense (just as in his television and DVD appearances) that we are being invited, not into a "sickroom" or den of Oriental homosexual perversions, but into a secret place--both boudoir and closet--of luxury, warmth (maternal, but not too smothering), calm and loving exotic wisdom, and above all, exquisite (if, to the ironic eye, campy) taste. On this website, pictures of the rooms in Walter's renovated house in Puerto Rico are accompanied by fulsome descriptions recalling that combination of "prestigious images of European culture" to which Montero refers, with the addition of exotic Oriental treasures that the owner has brought back to Puerto Rico from his travels.
According to these photographs, Walter's rooms hold masses of Rococo-style "antique" furniture and paintings, embellished with curlicues and gold leaf. On walls, furniture, and even the floor, figurines and pictures are virtually piled on top of each other, interspersed with long scarves coming down from the ceiling Scheherazade-like, gilded statues of Buddha and carved Oriental screens completing a neo-baroque plenitude (a kind of Severo Sarduy dream/nightmare). It is precisely the inner sanctum (that his home is filled both with European antiques and Orientalist objets seems of a piece with a "traveled" man of taste) that Walter's sets, his charisma, and his very mannerisms evoke. But this is an elan Walter has worked very hard to evoke.
We'll start with the bedroom, shall we? Accompanying Univision's online glimpse into Walter's very bedroom, the effusive copy by an anonymous online copywriter reads:
La habitacion principal es el laboratorio de suenos y visiones.... Esta estancia esta adornada con antiguedades europeas, muchas de las cuales ha adquirido en sus viajes.... Walter ... disfruta de su vida hogarena y que mejor que hacerlo en este espacio donde puede relajarse en plenitud ya que la decoracion ademas de ser exotica transmite tranquilidad y espiritualidad. (TVnotas USA 2008a)
When Walter made his first pilgrimage to Rajneesh, he tells us that the Bhagwan gave him the "Shakti Pat, que es como el orgasmo cosmico, la union de las dos fuerzas vitales, del yin con el yang.... Esto ocurre cuando el Maestro nos toca, que es cuando se produce como una corriente electrica por medio de la cual se siente la iluminacion, la realizacion de Dios en nuestro interior" (Mercado 2010: 21). As many scholars have noted, a "Tantric" discourse of sensuality and materiality was at the heart of Rajneesh's teachings (as well as part of his control over his disciples):
With the countercultural revolution and sexual liberation of the 1960s, Tantrism finally entered into the Western popular imagination in full force. If the 1960s may be said to represent a new freedom for sexual exploration, together with a new interest in alternative, non-Western, and Oriental religions, then Tantrism could well be said to be at the very center of new spirituality of the Aquarian Age. (Urban 2000: 285)
Walter also undoubtedly relied on the fact that most people, most especially Hispanophone Americans, would have forgotten--if they had ever even been aware--of the dangerous (even potentially murderous) excesses to which Rajneesh led his followers, especially in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, in the 1980s, when followers attempted "a widespread and deliberate poisoning, in which salmonella bacteria was distributed throughout restaurant salad bars and produce departments in the area" (Urban 1996: 168).
Thus when the presumably wild and titillating sexuality of Tantra is brought home to Puerto Rico, the combination becomes exotic but domestic, closeted but not perverse. Indeed, Walter invokes a very different Rajneesh in his latest book, as well as a completely re-framed "Tantric" sexuality in his shows, his own words, and even decor. Here Mercado is neither Marques' threateningly (homo)sexual lank-haired, dirty, half-naked, bearded, and drugged-out hippie, nor the irrational "sociopath" that Rajneesh became (Urban 1996: 168). In fact, his appearance and his sexuality go hand-in-hand, since it is his cultivated manners that allow many to assume that he is not gay, only "refined." The domestic nature of such gestures was underlined when for several years he was accompanied on television by Mariette Dettoto, a Brazilian dancer, actress, and artist. In fact, Mercado identified Mariette in interviews as his "soul mate" and at the end of the show they would kiss gently; ultimately, rumors in the press made it appear that they were to be married. However, in 2007, both Mariette and Walter appeared on the program Super X-Clusivo to clarify that they were not getting married; that any relationship they had was "cosmic" rather than physical, and that, as Mercado put it, "Entre ella y yo hay una comunion, de alma con alma" (No hay noviazgo ni boda 2007). Mercado reiterated that he does not believe in formal marriage, preferring instead to call his relationship with Mariette "una amistad con A mayuscula, que va mas alla de muchas cosas" (No hay noviazgo ni boda 2007).
Paradoxically, Walter's closeted queerness demands that even his relationships with women be both scrutinized by the press at the same time as he uses these relationships to domesticate his own queerness; in this case, he substituted a female sexual partner for a more familiar yet subtly tweaked image of a platonic partner, to put it crudely, the "fag hag." However, Mariette is not a hag at all, but a woman whose beauty and refinement can be appreciated within an intimate yet asexual relationship. Her presence, then, seemed to serve at least two purposes. Neither a psychic nor astrologer, she emphasized the humanistic side of Walter--she notes in an interview that together they worked to help orphans, poor and abused women, and people with AIDs. Even more important for Mercado, because Brazil is the largest market for New Age publications in Latin America, her appearance could aid in expanding his television audience.
Indeed, when Mercado is asked about his sexuality, as he was in an Univision online interview, Mercado's Orientalist answers gently gesture toward and simultaneously veil over the "truth" of his queerness while making it clear that his sexual practices are part of a difficult road of study and practice, not the result of an aberrant loss of self-control: "Practico el tantra ... unes tus fuerzas masculinas y las femininas y logras un orgasm cosmico.... Algunos maestros hindues no tuvieron sexo fisico, pero si sexo cosmico.... se practica mucho en la India" (TVnotas USA 2008a). Again, when Walter brings the exotic home to Puerto Rico, he domesticates it in the process: his discourse about sexuality and gender derives from a reassuringly familiar set of Latin American discourses that to be gay is to be a combination of masculine and feminine; and in fact, the inclusion of the masculine is important for Mercado's assertion of himself as an ultimate authority in matters spiritual (especially in strongly Catholic countries and households). Indeed, in their 2007 interview on Super X-Clusivo, Walter vehemently denies that he looks like a woman, instead affirming that he took his appearance from "un prinicipe de la India, donde se pintan, usan prendas; una imagen que yo no llamo feminina sino androgena porque no se definir," continuing defiantly, "!Ya quisieran muchos hombres, que se dicen llamar hombres, tener la sensibilidad y la fuerza interior que tengo yo! Porque, por fuera puedo lucir suave y dulce, pero tengo un poder interior que dudo que otro en la tierra lo tenga" (No hay noviazgo ni boda 2007). Here Walter affirms his masculine authority at the same time as he asserts his outward appearance not in fact to be feminine but to be the result of his exotic capital, his patterning himself after "un principe de la India."
A second and also reassuringly familiar assertion for Latin Americans would be that Oriental mystic wisdom can provide certain initiates with a safely "cosmic" rather than physical sexuality. Neo-Tantra (as many scholars prefer to call the Westernized version) has also become a central part of the commodification of spirituality; and as Romberg has shown, Puerto Ricans are already very familiar with a North American late capitalist spiritual commodification. For Mercado, then, neo-Tantra's promise of the cosmic sexual experience is important for his presentation of himself as spiritually, not physically, sexual, as well as his self-presentation as a good and rational businessman. In this way, as a practitioner of tantric sexuality, Walter accomplishes a kind of sleight of hand; this "fact" (or "act") both asserts his sexuality while it throws a veil of exotic mysticism over his queerness.
Conclusion: Oriental Style
Univision's descriptions accompanying the pictures of his house are appropriately florid, allowing us to understand how Mercado and the press that writes about him also make use of late twentieth-century discourses of Oriental or Asian style and spirituality which would be familiar even on the mainland (who hasn't watched the TV makeover show where homeowners request, or the designer invokes, a "Zen retreat"?). As we pause in the entryway to his domain, the copy from the website tells us that:
En la entrada de la casa del astrologo mas famoso del mundo, reposa "El buda durmiente," para que reine la armonia y la paz en su casa. Walter--cuando mando a remodelar su casa--considero que era muy importante que su casa tuviera un toque eclectico en donde se mezclara lo antiguo con lo oriental. (TVnotas USA 2008a)
Whether his viewers are middle- or working-class with aspirations both to spirituality and style, or nouveau riche with money to burn, or somewhere in between, they can imagine Walter as a well-traveled, culto, and discerning man, with an eye for the (design) and esoteric benefits of Southeastern Asian spiritual beliefs. This investment (literally, on Walter's part) in Oriental wisdom and style can be used for quite different ends: as an opening for an anti-bourgeois, even progressive stance; or to provide the theatrical, racial, and erotic aspects of a Latin American Orientalism, a domestic closet into which we are all invited, one with a queerly spiritual (or spiritually queer) esthetic.
As I have made clear, Mercado's success with a largely conservative, Catholic audience must be attributed to the fact that his persona hovers on the border between intentional camp and the cursi pretentiousness of middle-class aspirations to a European or even cosmopolitan elegance, made even more sophisticated by gestures toward the exoticism of the Far East, embedded as these gestures are in the deep Latin American--indeed, generally Western--cultural fascination with "Oriental" style, spirituality, and occult mysticism. This fascination has always been part of the global marketing of Asian spirituality as both a commodity and a state of mind/soul, of which Mercado has taken full advantage.
To the ironic or queer eye, Walter's style, dress and comportment may seem to indicate a self-consciously gay and campy esthetic. Yet I would argue that even if Mercado is (as he must be) conscious of the fact that his taste can be seen as camp, he relies on a reading of his style which in its excess is more likely to be interpreted by Latin Americans as suggesting the sophistication and cosmopolitan cultural capital valued by those with upwardly mobile socioeconomic aspirations--as culto. And it is this combination that allows Mercado to assume a kind of transcendent queerness, one which can be read, according to the desires and/or class status of the spectator, as sagrado, mistico, fino; as cursi, camp or kitsch; as a mystical "third sex" less connected to the physical than the cosmic; as the affectations of a man of cosmopolitan taste and wisdom; or, as a deliberately campy man who uses her "taste" as a kind of open closet, in all senses of that word.
I would especially like to acknowledge my good friend and colleague Efrain Barradas, without whose encouragement this article would never have been written; Ignacio F. Rodeno Iturriaga and Eliseo R. Colon, my fellow panel members in LASA 2009, Rio de Janeiro; my University of Florida colleagues Kenneth Kidd and Pamela Gilbert; and finally, Walter Mercado himself, for being such a wonderful subject.
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Viva Hollywood: Episode 4 Bonus Clips. Accessed 4 October 2011. http://www.vh1.com/shows/ viva_hollywood/series.jhtml/.
Zolov, Eric. 1999. Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
--. 2004. La Onda Chicana: The Forgotten Mexican Counterculture. In Rockin' Las Americas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America, eds. Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Hector Fernandez L'Hoeste, and Eric Zolov. 22-42. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
(1) In Black Behind the Ears, an examination of race in the Dominican Republic, Ginetta Candelario takes the argument about "somatic norms" advanced by Harry Hoetink, a prominent scholar on race relations in the Caribbean and the Americas. Via Hoetink, Candelaria argues for a distinction between the "somatic norm of whiteness in the Hispanic Caribbean" and the "somatic norm of whiteness" in the U.S. She notes that the "Iberian variant" in the Caribbean is (often) "darker-featured," and that this particular whiteness is in fact closer in proximity to "the expansion of social and legal whiteness to include racially intermediate individuals" in the Hispanic Caribbean. This allows for some wiggle room in thinking about a Caribbean "whiteness" and "darkness" not ruled automatically by hypo-descent, as is often the case in the U.S., but by phenotype: hair first, facial features next, then skin color, and if necessary then ancestry. Thus as most Latinamericanists know, "whiteness" in Latin America (especially in the Caribbean) is not exactly the same thing as whiteness in the U.S., although one can be Latin American and have white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Given the complicated ways racial politics plays out in different American countries, Mercado's undeniable presentation of whiteness--his skin color, and the privileges it gives him--must still be read within a social continuum of racial divisions in the Caribbean, and within a social ethnicity in the U.S., which renders him both recognizably white(skinned) while informing his persona with an ethnic, Puerto Rican "color."
(2) I do not assume here that queerness is the same for non-Puerto Ricans as it is for Puerto Ricans, either on or off the island. Although Mercado himself never refers to his sexuality, the subject comes up frequently; he relies on a now-familiar discourse of tantric, aphysical, "cosmic" sex, and even more importantly, for me, on the equally familiar Latin/o understanding of queerness as embodying both male and female, different from the post-Stonewall self-presentations especially of U.S. white gay men. As we will see, Arnaldo Cruz-Malave has also made clear the ways that queerness can be seen as a spectral subject at the heart of the patriarchal Puerto Rican national "family" (1995: 230). Again, as Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes notes in the first chapter of his Queer Ricans, Puerto Rican "culture is based on quite rigid notions of appropriate behavior for men and women, [but] it is also a flexible system that can allow for what would seem to be egregious contradictions.... the social performance of effeminate manhood is necessary for other men's successful enactment of virile masculinity to work...." (2009:1). In her chapter "La raza cosmetica," Diana Taylor reads Walter Mercado as performatively "bi": negotiating both mainland Puerto Ricans and island Puerto Ricans, his cursi taste both camp and rasquache (the art of making do); in this way, she claims, Walter also resists cultural and sexual limitations: "exuberantly navigating ... both male and female, both white and Latino ... both Puerto Rican and mainlander" (2003: 124). If Mercado's travestismo, his robes, his "raza cosmetica," his bouffant and careful makeup are evidence of his "bi"cultural self-presentation, nevertheless Efrain Barradas' reading of Mayra Santos-Febre's novel Sirena Selena vestida de pena ("Sirena Selena vestida de pena o el Caribe como travesti") notes that for Santos-Febre, transvestism represents the ways in which Latin American countries (here, the Caribbean) "dress up" like the First World in an attempt to draw nearer to "lo que cada dia se ve mas lejos: el progreso y la civilacion" (2003: 57-8). I argue in this article that Mercado's astonishingly successful self-marketing is part of, indeed made possible by, the "progress" that the U.S.' neoliberal policies and global reach have presumably brought to Puerto Rico; in this sense, Mercado's travesti persona might be seen as the sign for a Puerto Rico both colonized by and imbricated within late capitalist global markets.
(3) As Foucault states, "We must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse ... but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies.... with the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objectives.... Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it" (1998: 100-1).
(4) Mercado left Univision in 2010, after 15 years of hosting a daily horoscope show. Reasons for his leaving vary: according to Guannabee.com, the online "Daily News Network for the Latino in You," "First tweeted by Al RojoVivo's Maria Celeste, and now confirmed by the man himself, Walter Mercado announced that he and Univision have parted ways after fifteen years.... It seems the trouble started way back in the mid 90's when Mercado signed a deal with Florida manager Guillermo Bakula to promote his brand in the United States. Part of his contractual obligation was to shoot segments to be aired on Univision. He also, apparently, signed all the rights to his image away. In return, Walter was to receive $32,000 a month for clothing. Those robes ain't free, girl.... [but] Bakula sued him for about 10 million dollars. The suit was settled in February of last year in an unprecedented decision by a federal jury that declared Mercado guilty of breaking his contract, but not guilty of causing any damages to Bakula and therefore not required to pay him any money" (Casares 2010).
(5) Mercado's 2009 English-language book, Beyond the Horizon: Visions of the New Millenium was ghostwritten by Carlos Harrison, who has also ghostwritten numerous "Hispanic" and New-Age/business texts (Harrison n.d.).
(6) Ironically (given that Mercado himself acted in telenovelas), Estrada went on to star in the 1990s in the Mexican Televisa telenovela Dos mujeres, un camino, which became one of the biggest telenovelas in Latin American history; Estrada had to learn his lines phonetically and work hard to get rid of his Nuyorican accent. As for Mercado's shilling for Old Navy, touting itself as a "family store," the San Francisco Chronicle quotes Old Navy's marketing chief: "We have a lot of Hispanic or Latino customers already.... They're in our stores. That marketplace is very family oriented, so we're a perfect environment" (Strasbourg 2004).
(7) The repeal of the U.S. anti-Asian immigration laws in 1963 increased access to a range of Southeast Asian ideas and imagery. From the end of World War II through the war in Vietnam, the U.S. and its possessions had greater access to (Southeast) Asian spiritual beliefs as well as to relatively inexpensive Asian goods. Ironically, markets noted, and took advantage of, the desire on the part of those in (countercultural) search of ways out of capitalist patriarchy for the material goods which would represent "otherness" by their association with presumably ancient and unmodern ways of thinking and believing: incense, textiles, images, fragrance, aids to meditation, images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities, Indian gurus themselves. From the 1950s interest in Buddhism, Zen, and yoga, through the early 1970s fascination with India and Hindu beliefs and practices, an enormous variety of what we would now call "New Age" and countercultural discourses--often though not always accompanied by "jipi" styles of clothing and behavior--made a particularly strong public appearance on the national Latin American and Caribbean stage, especially in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico.
Under the aegis of a broader, often revolutionary, political and epistemological counterculture moving through Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1950s, reaching its height in the 1970s, revolutionary impulses fanned by writers such as Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, as well as by the events and writings coming from the Cuban Revolution of 1959 often found their counterpart in discourses of spiritual renewal offered not just by "hippies" from the U.S. but by writers and intellectuals who were desperately looking for solutions to the ongoing crises of social and political justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. Once again, alternative spiritual beliefs gained popularity first among an urban middle-class and, in places like Chile, the urban working class. In Mexico, the humanist psychologist Erich Fromm's connections with D.T. Suzuki, a Zen Buddhist, helped to bring Asian ideas to the already active ferment of ideas in the 1950s; Jodoroski's counterculture brand of 1960s hipness would also be influential. The continuing popularity throughout 20th-century Latin America of "Oriental" figures such as Krishnamurti (for example, from 1970 to 1993, Puerto Rico was the headquarters for the Fundacion Krishnamurti Hispanoamerica), Rabindranath Tagore, and Khalil Gibran also helped motivate a certain reinvigoration of alternative spiritual beliefs and practices ranging from reincarnation to Zen Buddhism to yoga.
(8) As Barr-Melej notes in his discussion of the Chilean movement of "Siloismo," "The 1960s and early 1970s were a time of extraordinary ambition around the world. Utopias were pursued, including those imagined by revolutionaries pledged to end exploitation.... In this setting, scores of young people in places like Berkeley, Mexico City, Paris, and even in Santiago generated countercultural currents characterized by sexual liberation, reconceptualized gender and gendered relations, a particular material culture, drug use, demands for political and cultural democratization, and opposition to all war. These young people made known their alienation by expressing, through various forms of collectivism and straightforward defiance, their counter-hegemonic sensibilities based on desires for liberation" (2006: 750).
(9) Racism on the North American side, at least on the part of some attendees such as Barry Kramer, founder of the rock 'n roll magazine CREEM, made sure that they would see and describe for their white readers only what they expected to see in the curious crowds of Puerto Ricans observing the festival: "dark," violent "gangs," and an already nostalgic harking back to the high point of the "summer of love," 1968. Of the Mar y Sol Festival, Kramer wrote in the July 1972 issue, "The dark eyes of violence were always staring over your shoulder. Gangs of Puerto Ricans roamed the grounds in varying shades of belligerence, many carrying knives and apparently itchy fingers. It was like an ugly New York City against a postcard backdrop.... More than once during the three days, in fact we were to feel like a yellowing photograph in Life magazine; a living theater re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans" (Kramer: 1972, cited in "MarySol Festival,"--emphasis added).
(10) As Urban notes, "Soon after beginning his teachings, he aroused enormous controversy among his Indian audience, by proclaiming that sex was divine and that true enlightenment could only be achieved by indulging all bodily desires. To infuriate his listeners further, he publicly attacked such national heroes as Mahatma Gandhi, calling him 'a masochist, a chauvinist and a pervert' ... In 1971 he began to call himself Bhagwan--the 'blessed one' or 'God'--and built an Ashram in Poona, where he hoped to begin a 'utopian community' of renunciants (sannyasins).... In his more apocalyptic moments, Rajneesh even predicted the imminence of a Third World War, which would destroy all civilization except his own utopian society" (1996: 166).
The author (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Florida. Her interests include U.S. (Afro) Latina/Chicano studies, especially examining the use of esotericism to rewrite race and sexuality. She is the author of Mestizo Modernism: Race, Nation, and Identity in Latin American Culture, 1900-1940 (Rutgers University Press, 2003) and is working on a book tentatively titled "Queering the Cosmic Race: Spirituality, Race, and Sexuality in Gloria Anzaldua, Ana Mendieta, and Walter Mercado, 1968-2012."
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|Publication:||CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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