Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

A High-Tech Distiller
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1 Ilias, Alexander and Bojaha, 2016As a relatively recent Greek immigrant, Ilias Mastrogiannis has established his career with the Microsoft Corporation, has his own family and is developing a distillery business.

Ilias is the second son born to Constantinos and Vasiliki Mastrogiannis in Agrinio, in the Aetolia-Acarnania region of Greece, on June 16, 1985.  The name Mastrogiannis can be translated to mean mastoras (a craftsman or builder – there are builders among his ancestors) and giannis (John).  Ilias claims no middle name, which is traditional in Greece; middle names are more common among Greeks in the United States.

ILIAS’ FAMILY IN GREECE

Ilias’ paternal papou (grandfather), Thanasi, had a pandopolio 2 Constandinos Mastrogiannis, 2012(small supermarket) in Agrinio where his son, Ilias’ father, Constantinos, “Costas,” worked in his younger years.  After serving in the army he left the family store to establish his own masonry business, primarily laying tiles in homes, villas and commercial buildings throughout Greece.  For many years Constantinos would travel to the job site on his bicycle with his tools strapped behind him.  Later, he obtained a motorcycle.  He conscientiously provided for his family, particularly for his sons’ futures.   During the summer Ilias and his brother would occasionally accompany Constantinos on his business trips and enjoyed playing and swimming near the buildings after helping their father.  Constantinos also became proficient at making wine, something he continues in his retirement.

3 Vasiliki Mastrogiannis, 2012Ilias’ mother, Vasiliki (nee Krithimou), grew up on a farm just outside of Agrinio.  Vasiliki and Constantinos met through a mutual friend and the proxenio (arranged marriage) followed.   Her family raised tobacco plants and olive trees.  They sold the products to large companies; for example, tobacco leaves to the Papastratos Cigarette Manufacturing Company.  Ilias grew up picking tobacco leaves on the farm. Vasiliki and Constantinos are retired and live in the family home near the farm.  While they no longer raise tobacco, they do keep chickens and maintain the olive grove, the oil from which produces a small income.

Their oldest son, Thanasis, had the opportunity to come to the United States in 1997.  He had finished high school in Greece but the family knew he would have better opportunities in the United States.  A cousin, James Fotinopoulos, had served in the United States Air Force in Crete and was established in Lakewood, Washington, with his wife, Deena. Thanasis was able to live with them, finish college while in Washington and return to Europe where he now lives in London, England.

ILIAS’ STORY

Ilias was to have been named Vasilis after his materna4 Ilias on a motorcycle, 1995l grandfather.  However, when Vasiliki had a dream about the prophet Ilias, she knew that would be her younger son’s name.   Ilias’ early memories in Greece are of playing outside or helping on the farm during the summers.  As the extended family lived nearby, he especially enjoyed his yiayia’s (grandmother) fresh-baked goods which she served in a small tapsi (pan) just for him.  He finished elementary and middle school in Agrinio and at age 16, while a junior in high school, the economic situation in Greece began to falter.  Knowing that finding employment in the future would be difficult, he followed his brother’s example and made the difficult decision to leave his family and live with his cousins, Deena and James, in Washington.

5 Deena  and James Fotinopoulos, 2011His perception of life in America, with its tall buildings and fancy cars, was unfounded when he arrived in the small suburban town of Lakewood.  Initially the Fotinopoulos family lived on the grounds of McChord Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord).  Ilias arrived just before “911” (September 11, 2001) and began school two days later.  While he had a good command of the English language from after-school frontistirio (tutoring) in Greece, it was a shock to adjust to the rapid speech and slang he encountered.  With no other Greeks in his class or school, he knew it would be difficult but that it would be better for him once he adjusted.   James, Deena and their children became his family.  However, he was able to visit his own family and friends in Greece during the summers.

School for Ilias was a bit easier in 6 Ilias and Vasiliki, 2001Lakewood than it had been in Agrinio, except for the English classes.  He had been a decent student in Greece with exposure to more difficult history and mathematics classes at an early age. In Lakewood there were only a few subjects where in Greece there were 17 subjects to be covered with shorter class times and more homework.  His experience in high school computer classes helped prepare him for his career.  He graduated from high school in 2003 and then earned his associate degree from Pierce College in Lakewood.  With success in advanced placement classes and exposure to computers, he entered Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, and earned his bachelor’s degree in information technology in 2006.

7 Ilias and Thanasi, circa 2000      8 Ilias and Thanasi, 2011

Ilias’ thoughts of returning to Greece faded as he saw economic conditions worsening.  He had been fortunate to have internships both in Lakewood, at Western State Hospital, and in Ellensburg which helped strengthen his resume.  He obtained a position with the German company Seimens IT Solutions, located in Seattle, Washington, where, for the next three and one half years, he worked under contract with Microsoft. That contract led to a full time position which he has held for the past five years.  His work includes providing support for services that power the Windows operating system.  Ilias finds it to be a fast-paced work environment dealing with large-scale data centers around the world.  With a few years of experience, he is now able to work predictable hours and can work from home when necessary.

9 Ilias and Bojaha, 2011 10 Ilias and Bojaha wedding, 2011 11 Wedding, (l-r) Vasiliki, Constantinos, Ilias, Bojaha, Cedo and Rada Marusic, 2011

ILIAS’ FAMILY IN WASHINGTON

In December of 2006, Ilias was at Fournos, a Greek-owned pizzeria and bar in Seattle’s University District, where Bojana Marusic and a friend were also enjoying the evening.  After an introduction, it was “just one of those things.”  Bojana was born in Bosnia in 1984 and was able to come to America in 1998 with her mother, father and sister.  Ilias and Bojana were married in a civil ceremony in Seattle on November 24, 2007, and again in a Greek Orthodox wedding sacrament in Agrinio on July 17, 2011, with family and 12 Ilias with wedding crowns, 2016friends in attendance.  They use the sacramental date as the beginning of their marriage.  Bojana is the assistant to the food and beverage director at the Fairmont Olympic, Seattle’s historic upscale downtown hotel.  Ilias is fortunate to have obtained his United States citizenship through his marriage.  When their son was born on July 12, 2013, he was to have been named after his paternal papou.  However, with many “Costas” in the world, they chose Alexander Constantine Mastrogiannis for his name, even with the difficulty of squeezing the name into the spaces on official records and forms.

Ilias and Bojana have made contact with a number of Greeks working at Microsoft.  At a recent Vasilopita (St. Basil’s Bread) which is traditionally cut into slices on the first of January to bring good luck to the recipient of the slice with a hidden coin, about 50 Greeks were in attendance at the Redmond, Washington, Microsoft campus.  Microsoft has been supportive of those seeking to maintain their culture and traditions.

The Mastrogiannis home in Renton, Washington, is conveniently located for his work and when he and 13 Elias, Alexander, Bojaha, 2015Bojana attend St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in nearby Issaquah, Washington.  The recent Greek Microsoft immigrants are less dependent on the Greek Orthodox Church community for their social activities than those in the early 1900s who lived near their church.  For Ilias and his family, traveling to the larger Greek communities of St. Demetrios in Seattle or St. Nicholas in Tacoma, Washington, takes some advance planning.  Plus, Ilias would like to see the Greek community reach out more aggressively to provide meaningful participation by the recent immigrants.

Ilias admits he has been somewhat spoiled with the support he has received from his parents and from his Lakewood cousins.  He values the work ethic he learned from his parents and, more importantly, the meraki (soul or artistry) or the essence of self that one puts into a task.  Just as his father used meraki in his tiling business and in wine making, Ilias is embarking on a new venture, a distillery where he will make Greek spirits: tsiporo, ouzo and brandy.  All his spare time and money has b14 Mastrogiannis Distillery business card, 2016een used to acquire equipment and build a facility in Lakewood. He knows of only one other such business in the United States.  His products will be based primarily on Riesling wines from eastern Washington to which he will add various botanicals to create the final products.

Ilias’ transition into the United States was relatively easy after adjusting to the less formal American English and the usual teasing among teenagers.  He has found it relatively easy to meet people and appreciates the diverse ethnic backgrounds of many he has met. Had he remained in Greece, he believes he would either be unemployed or working in a very menial job.  Initially, he thought coming to the United States was a mistake but, as difficult as it was to make the decision, he knows it was a wise one.  Although far from his family, his heart remains in Greece and, if the right opportunity became available in Greece, he might consider returning there some day.

By John and Joann Nicon, September, 2016
VIDEO SEGMENTS
PHOTOS
1 Ilias, Alexander and Bojana, 2016
2 Constantinos Mastrogiannis, 2012
3 Vasiliki Mastrogiannis, 2012
4 Ilias on a motorcycle, 1995
5 Deena and James Fotinopoulos, 2011
6 Ilias and Vasiliki, 2001
7 Ilias and Thanasis, circa 2000
8 Ilias and Thanasis, 2011
9 Ilias and Bojana, 2011
10 Ilias and Bojana wedding, 2011
11 Wedding in Greece (l-r) Vasiliki, Constantinos, Ilias, Bojana, Cedo and Rada Marusic, 2011
12 Ilias with stefana (wedding crowns), 2016
13 Elias, Alexander, Bojana, 2015
14 Mastrogiannis Distillery business card, 2016
Photos 1, 12 and 14 by John Nicon; all others from Mastrogiannis family collection
SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, April 2016