I’ve always felt some imposter syndrome about being Italian American. Even though most of my family has never even been to Italy, we eat pasta instead of ham on Christmas, and we indulge the loud, boisterous Italian stereotype. As a kid, I clung to Italian characters I saw in TV shows, movies, and, of course, video games. I’ve always been proud that the video game mascot, Mario, is of Italian origin, just like me. But as I’ve gotten older and tried to reckon with what being Italian American means to me, I’ve learned that I have more in common with Wario than his inspiration.
It’s not clear if Mario is Italian or Italian American. While Mario is based in Brooklyn, no one seems to know if he’s an Italian immigrant who took up the plumbing arts before reaching the Mushroom Kingdom or if he’s a New York native with a surprisingly thick accent. When you try to get into why baby Mario is hanging out in the Mushroom Kingdom with Yoshi before he becomes a Brooklyn-based plumber, things get even more complicated.
But regardless of where Mario is from, he’s a famous Italian character. His hyphenated way of speaking and that thick accent — the its-a-mes and the lets-a-gos — are a widespread stereotype. He’s a little portly, not particularly tall, and has a bushy black mustache and thick hair — just like me, and my uncles, and every male relative I’ve ever seen a picture of.
Mario’s look and language seem to stem from old Italian stereotypes, the kind of stuff shown in anti-Italian political cartoons in the early 20th century. Unlike those depictions, though, Mario wasn’t designed with malice in mind. He’s got a calm and confident personality, which one can easily read as no personality at all. He doesn’t engage in some of the cruder, louder behavior that we sometimes see in Italian stereotypes on TV. You’d never associate him with the mafia, the most popular brand of Italian American fiction. Today, Mario’s goofy accent, bright blue eyes, and pudgy tummy feel like affectionate characteristics, given the changing place of Italians in American culture and Mario’s own sticking power as a character.
Wario, as the mirror Mario, takes the opposite approach. Where Mario is seemingly polite and quiet, Wario is loud and noticeable. He’s fat, he’s greasy, he’s loud, he’s arrogant, and he’s obsessed with garlic. He’s another Italian stereotype, but a grimmer one than Mario. He’s The Situation from the Jersey Shore or basically every character from Goodfellas — a blown-up, exaggerated version of a national identity. Wario has many of the same negative characteristics as mobsters and other unsavory “Italian” portrayals in American culture.
But when I look at my own family, I see more of that loud, obnoxious Wario charm than Mario’s quiet confidence. My family emulates Italian culture the same way Wario does: loudly and proudly. Some of us struggle with our weight, there’s definitely some boasting going on, and we’re also obsessed with garlic (which if you ask me is a positive, though the people around us might disagree). As far as I’m concerned, my motorcycle-riding, farting, swearing uncle is basically Wario made manifest.
It seems that the further my family gets from Italy, generationally, the more we adopt that over-the-top stereotype. For my family, and for many of the Italian Americans we see on TV, there seems to be a push to exaggerate — to be extra in order to be Italian. Not all Italians are like that — just look at Mario — but for my family, it’s how we make an identity for ourselves.
My great grandparents purposefully didn’t teach my grandfather how to speak Italian, out of fear of making him seem abnormal among his American classmates. But where we’ve lost the culture that comes with language, we’ve retained some energetic mannerisms and the hand-waving joy of yelling over each other — and maybe we even exaggerated them further to make up for the culture we’ve lost over the years.
When I consider Wario, I feel like he’s doing the same: his blown-up, exaggerated personality differentiates him from Mario and makes him more than just an evil twin or a copy. The Italian characteristics that Nintendo uses to denote Wario as “evil Mario” and unlikable are the very traits that make me feel a kinship with him. Those traits aren’t unsavory to me, they’re familiar; they remind me of people I love.
Mario is the hero; Wario is a character I feel like I’m not supposed to like. But for me, Wario captures so much more of the Italian personality that resonates with me. Wario trumps Mario as my family mascot, born with a crucial, relatable need to be louder and larger than life.