La Americana: A Memoir

La Americana: A Memoir

by Melanie Bowden Simón


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La Americana is the story of Melanie Bowden Simón, who, at the age of twenty-five, left her job at Tina Brown’s Talk magazine following the death of her mother and decided to take a vacation in Havana, Cuba, with a friend. Little did she know that she would meet and fall in love with a Cuban man named Luis and dive headlong into a culture defined by beauty, humor, and grace within the unnerving realities of communism.

In this memoir, Simón details her fascination with Cuban culture as she grapples with the death of her mother. She also covers the struggle to get in and out of Cuba at a time when the country is labeled a pariah state. Yet over and over again, Simón manages to overcome international barriers and overcome language and cultural obstacles—all in the name of her love for Luis.

This book makes a great read for those with an interest in Cuban history, a zest for romance, or a passion for travel.

Skyhorse Publishing, along with our Arcade, Good Books, Sports Publishing, and Yucca imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. Our list includes biographies on well-known historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Nelson Mandela, and Alexander Graham Bell, as well as villains from history, such as Heinrich Himmler, John Wayne Gacy, and O. J. Simpson. We have also published survivor stories of World War II, memoirs about overcoming adversity, first-hand tales of adventure, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510702554
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 07/19/2016
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Melanie Bowden Simón is a publicist and writer who received a bachelor's in Journalism from the University of Georgia. Named a 2016 '35 Over 35' Debut Author, her book La Americana: A Memoir was a #1 Kindle and Top 5 Amazon Best Seller. She lives in Savannah, Georgia with her husband, their three Spanglish-speaking kids and a bilingual Weimaraner.

Read an Excerpt



It was April 2001 when our plane touched down in Havana. Cynthia and I stepped off the plane and into crazy humidity, even by my native Georgian standards. On the concrete, military guards in green directed us to glass doors a few feet away, and I crossed the threshold into a frigid blast of air.

My nerves were hopping, and the female passport inspector at the bank-teller-like window didn't help matters. Her steely stare and thick mustache bullied my freckly face, blond hair, and hazel eyes. It was as if the monster under my childhood bed had actually come out and was staring me in the face.

She looked at the photo, at me, at the photo, and at me again. She nodded and I heard a buzz. I looked back at Cynthia and discreetly signaled with one of my thumbs that I was a go. I turned to push through the skinny, wooden door.

Cynthia followed my lead, and soon enough we were outside, where it was complete pandemonium, with hundreds of people lining the gate. Mothers, aunts, and sisters gasped and wept, spotting family members and friends. We pushed our way through the locals only to be bombarded by taxi drivers offering their services. We repeatedly shook our heads no.

While in Cancun, we had spoken to a travel agent who arranged a car service from a Havana hotel to meet us. Through the blur of bodies, we found our guy holding a sign with a jumbled version of my name — Melyani Bowdoin.

Cyn and I slid into the backseat of the black Mercedes and looked out of our respective windows. Our driver was animated and funny, gesticulating wildly, but I couldn't understand him. Cynthia could because she had lived in various Spanish-speaking countries. I met her during my last semester of college while studying abroad in Spain.

It had been three years since I had spent time in Madrid, completing a language minor from the University of Georgia. Yet, had it been English that day, I still couldn't have talked. Mom was gone and sometimes I found it hard just to breathe. So I wrote. Vigorously.

On the way to Hotel Capri, which is located in a residential neighborhood of Havana called Vedado, we saw tank-like 1950s-era Fords and Chevrolets plowing past small, rusted, slightly more modern cars. At bus stops, passengers piled into the strangest breed of vehicle I had ever seen. The base resembled a San Francisco streetcar attached to the front of an eighteen-wheeler truck. An oversize accordion bridged a second section of the bus to give it Alice in Wonderland proportions. People held on to overhead rings as heavy diesel fumes created a low, gray skyline. Dilapidated buildings in various states lined the small highway. Chickens and cattle went about their business in overgrown weeds. Suddenly, billboards came at us in three-dimensional proportions.

VIVA LA REVOLUCION! LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION! FORTY-TWO YEARS OF THE REVOLUTION! WETRIUMPH WITH SOCIALISM! the signs, scattered throughout the city, screamed in bold yellow and red letters.

Images of Che Guevara, Cuba's socialist revolutionary, decorated the city's concrete with his face on the fronts of buildings, signs, schools, and banners. Even more notably I found myself journaling about a place with no Coca-Cola, no McDonald's, and no Starbucks. In fact, there weren't even any advertisements of any kind there, other than the propaganda.

Arriving at the hotel, we checked in to a room with feeble twin beds that looked as if they came from my grandmother's attic. The low-to-the-ground mattresses caved in when we plopped down on them. A faded, off-white vanity was positioned in the middle of the room and large windows with open curtains gave us a magnificent ocean view.

We packed day bags, headed for the door, and walked the short distance to the Malecón, the city's seawall that borders roughly five miles of Havana's coastline. Gingerly, we maneuvered along the sidewalk's concrete pits and falls as whipping air gusts pushed us around like two grown Raggedy Anns. I half stumbled when a '50s clunker whooshed by, the driver furiously blowing the horn.

"Hola rubias!" he belted at us, the two blondies. Cyn and I laughed out loud, but quickly snapped our openmouthed grins shut with the onslaught of thick, black car fumes. The Cuban disappeared around the curb with one last emphatic shout-out. "Americanaaaaaas!"

Siphoning diesel from my nostrils with rapid, Lamaze-style breaths, I shared a chuckle, and then a howl, with Cyn as we were simultaneously flipped around by another wicked ocean bluster. No use in fighting, we took its lead, heading back toward our hotel on the corner of Twenty-first and N. We landed facing Hotel Nacional, a Cuban landmark that is known for former guests like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and their mafia cohorts who rented out entire floors of both Nacional and Capri, where we were staying. Lining the hotel's corridors are photos of diplomats, royals, and celebrities who continue to go there today.

Yet, what caught our attention at that particular moment was a single Cocotaxi, which resembles a large, yellow PAC-MAN. An American man on our flight over suggested that we look for the inexpensive and quick ride as a great way to get around Old Havana. We jumped into the back of one, and speaking Spanish for the first time, I asked to go to Havana Vieja.

The driver, whom I hadn't given any consideration, turned back to us. Almond-shaped caramel eyes, topped with long butterfly-wing lashes, landed directly on mine. It was an intense, swift heart jump that struck me hard. My whole body tensed in self-defense.


Manhattan and Tina Brown's Talk

He introduced himself as Luis and when he did, I thought of my mother. Had she sent this beautiful young man to watch over us?

My mother, whose story was classic in many ways, grew up in Tampa, Florida, in a middle-class home where education was emphasized. My grandfather Jim, a Gregory Peck baritone who wore large, round glasses perched high over a fair-skinned, Germanic jawline and chiseled cheeks, was a professor and chair of English at the University of South Florida. On his crown was a clean swipe, not an angstrom of hair, and the brimmed hats that hung on the front parlor wooden hat rack were sacred for Saturday morning tennis match coverage. My younger brother, Walter, and I called him Grandy and his Gin Rummy game was legendary. Following chocolate-chip-pancake-and-leftover-London-broil breakfasts during scorching summer visits, he schooled us on ten-card draws, runs, and sequences. Taking turns, we parked at a card table with folding chairs set in the living room, and his deep laugh boomed throughout the house, which smelled of an early-morning Folgers brew, if either of us undermined his game. In his presence, my mom, the eldest of his two girls, was relaxed. They shared a love of language and college football and relished in spirited rivalry. Mom, a die-hard Florida Gators fan, propped her arms in a wide V and in her best reptilian impression, pretended to chomp us from her seat on the sofa while Grandy, an Alabama native, vowed imminent defeat at the hands of his beloved Auburn Tigers.

From the kitchen, my grandmother, Lorraine, or Grandmomma as we called her, entertained a world of her own. Her lone voice roiled on low like a late-night TV rerun as the faucet ran long after she'd finished washing dishes. With pre-surgery precision, she scrubbed each of her long, slender fingers, pressing along the dorsal veins and then over the top arteries before moving to the blue, spidery arches of her hands. The ceremonial drying towel morphed into a dishrag that gave one last countertop sweep before retiring it to the laundry bin in the garage.

Standing at the crux of the kitchen and dining room, Grandmomma, a slim-figured former basketball star with cropped, loose white curls, peppered us with light questions about school, sports, and our friends while the sharp glare of plastic, snuggly fit over the living room sofa and chairs, cut through the doorway behind her.

Sometimes when Grandmomma laughed, she blinked furiously in a maladjusted camera shutter sort of twitch while pinching the side hinge of her oversize eyeglass frames to boost a nose slip. To us, it was a benign gesture, but to my mom it signaled anger. Mom's impression was dead on, but it only surfaced during rare recounts of her childhood memories.

At Chamberlain High School, my mom was Marti, an easygoing, popular, and pretty blonde who made mostly As and won spelling bees. But at home she was Martha and under the watchful eye of my grandmother, too skinny. She could have been smarter if she studied more.

Mom found refuge in Grandy's library, tucked into the far back corner of their home. The rows of literature, both classic and modern, sat next to the great playwrights and they whispered to her in clear and vibrant tones. She responded in the only way she could — as a teenager, she became an active theater member, playing out their roles as often as possible. She also was a good writer and for years talked about drafting a novel. While an English major at the University of Florida, my mom met my father, Walter, an attractive, honorable young man studying business. He and my mom dated throughout college and married just before he was called to serve in Vietnam. On her own, Mom briefly returned home with her parents and taught high school English. Following my dad's return a year later, she worked various lightweight secretary jobs, though I'm certain she secretly dreamed of a creative life — eccentricities included — in New York City.

Yet, life being what it was, and considering the roles for women at that time, my mom settled into married life. Not that it was bad. She was married to a nice and caring man whose focus was his family. Later, I was born and Walter came two and a half years later.

However, in time she and my father had little left in common; while she loved us, she sought personal inspiration in local theaters. My father worked vigorously in banking, seeking solace in his children and nature in any free time he could muster. They divorced when I was ten. My father remarried Becky, who became a very important person in my life, a second mother. Mom and I eventually moved to Atlanta, which was a pit stop on her way to the bright and alluring lights of New York. When I graduated from high school, she made her last leap. After a year of freelance PR jobs in the city, she landed a full-time one with David Mamet's nonprofit organization, the TADA! Youth Theater on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Perks included preview theater tickets, which she gobbled up. Routinely, she shared invites with me, her evergreen baby girl who visited during college and later when I settled into New York in 1999.

I loved every second, sitting in the darkened, iconic settings on and off-Broadway with my mom. She introduced me to the subtle and dry wit of Tony winners Frank Wood and Edie Falco in Side Man; the dysfunctional, mad genius of John Leguizamo in Spic-O-Rama; and the prim, fluid voices of Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, and Brian Stokes Mitchell that burrowed and popped under my skin. I erupted at the Ambassador Theater on West Forty-ninth when Savion Glover invited audience members to the toe-tapped wooden side stage during "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." Our legs crunched in early-twentieth-century architecture, I leaped over my mom and neighboring patrons in a clumsy dash to the stage where I planted myself directly behind Savion, who stopped time with his raw, poetic, and powerhouse foot thrusts and heel slaps. I'm not a tapper, but I had to be there, to be a part of that energy, and I carried the nearly religious experience back to the tiny seat row where my mom waited for me, wearing the same wild look of joy on her face. It was clear then that as a young adult, I had become her extension, playing out inspired bursts that she had learned to cap in her childhood home.

High off the performances, we always shared dinner, offering praise or potshots. With one hand bridged along the side of her face, Mom held a chardonnay stem with the other and twinkled in a post-theater glow.

A few years later when she scored the PR director position for the Yale School of Drama and its professional in-house group, the Yale Repertory Theatre, it was a high mark. She was able to promote visiting alumni like Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver, as well as bold and temperamental playwrights like John Guare, who directed Laura Linney in Landscape of the Body.

While there she married Jim McGonigle, a whip-smart and kind man seventeen years her senior, after a meet-up at the Lambs Club in Manhattan. Age apart, they complemented each other well with a love of solid performances, travel, and mild smart-ass satire. She was the calm to his feisty and after her early retirement from Yale, they shuttled back and forth between their Morristown, New Jersey, home and Manhattan apartment. So when I moved to New York in March 1999 as a newbie University of Georgia graduate, to my delight, this meant that I was back within close proximity to Mom. With fresh journalism and Spanish degrees in hand, I had packed my Honda Civic with a mix of hand-me-down bedsheets, lamps, and side tables, as well as the heaviest clothes from my closet. I knew nights would still be cold once I crossed the Virginia line.

On the front seat of my car sat an overstuffed, padded manila envelope. Inside were a handful of articles I had written for professors and the local paper in Athens, Georgia. It had been my first real job — writing about town happenings. I also brought along a thesis paper following the career of Tina Brown, who once headed The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

So, a year later after various temp jobs, when the head of a Manhattan entertainment staffing agency asked me if I knew who Tina Brown was and would I like to sit in as her second assistant at Talk magazine, I thought he was joking. He wasn't.

I sweated three interviews for a job that wasn't even permanent. The first two rounds were with managing editors, and finally I qualified to meet with Margaret, Tina's first assistant. In time, Margaret — or Mags as I now call her — became my dear friend, but at first she completely intimidated me. She is only slightly older than I was, but she was so very serious that it threw me. I had never met anyone my age so put together. Yet, behind the suit and her small, oval glasses, I sensed that she was fair.

Fair she was. I started at Talk a few days later, knowing that, because of the stress level, a string of girls already had come and gone from the same job. I was innocent in a small-town kind of way and sat in a chair tucked in the far corner of the building, taking on any number of tasks that Margaret delegated to me. She briefed me on this, on that. Do this, try not to do that. And always — always — pick up the phone.

I remember being horribly nervous when someone once asked me to take a Diet Coke to Tina in the middle of a meeting. She was with a group of Miramax execs, and I became nauseous at the thought of interrupting. Did Tina like ice? Would she want a straw? Would anyone even look at me?

A couple of the girls ribbed me: Tina only likes one cube of ice and the straw cocked to the right side, not the left. NOT THE LEFT. Gallantly, I took the bait: I dropped one cube of ice in, but I couldn't get the damn straw to stay on the right side. Finally, the girls caved in a fit of laughter, and caught in my own absurdity, I did too.

It didn't take long to realize that Tina didn't care much about ice or straws. She had better things to think about. In its infancy Talk was a powerful magazine. Staff members frequently turned up in New York's gossip columns or as inserts in other magazines for being fabulous, rich, and influential. Tina was known for throwing powerhouse parties, which were impressive to even the most impressive.

I tried to take it all in stride, but when I helped set up an intimate dinner at her Manhattan home, with place cards that read BILL CLINTON, ROBERT DENIRO, and BARBRA STREISAND — among thirty or so others — it was hard for my heart not to skip a beat.

Yet it was my mother's excitement that spilled, as she became near giddy when I gave any insight, insipid or not, about our goings-on at work. In reality, her joy came from watching me chase my dreams — something she didn't do at my age. When I was hired permanently as an assistant to Joe Armstrong, a vice president who crossed both the magazine and book divisions, my mom began to call me on my direct line routinely, enthusiastically, to make sure I had seen the most current gossipy bit on Talk or Tina. What she didn't know was that if anyone in our office sneezed, it would be reported. Reported — it would be seized, scrutinized, stored, and rocketed to our office. The universe did not permit Talk media to go unnoticed.


Excerpted from "La Americana"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Melanie Bowden Simón.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note/Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 Havana 1

Chapter 2 Manhattan and Tina Brown's Talk 5

Chapter 3 Gringas in Castro's Cuba 13

Chapter 4 Tick Tock 21

Chapter 5 Who's Afraid of Uncle Sam? 27

Chapter 6 Maria Victoria and the Casa Particular 32

Chapter 7 Click Clack Go the Tiles 36

Chapter 8 Hallmark Moments 38

Chapter 9 Advanced Cancer 40

Chapter 10 Devastating Blow 43

Chapter 11 Old Man and the Sea 45

Chapter 12 Path Finder 56

Chapter 13 Signs and Symbols 57

Chapter 14 Castro the Artist 63

Chapter 15 Good-byes 67

Chapter 16 Therapy in the Garden 73

Chapter 17 Gypsy 84

Chapter 18 Freckles 86

Chapter 19 La Americana 87

Chapter 20 The Kiss 94

Chapter 21 Thirty-Six Hours and Counting 102

Chapter 22 War 110

Chapter 23 Budapest 115

Chapter 24 A Mismatched LEGO Piece 118

Chapter 25 Lost Along the Danube 121

Chapter 26 The Serb 123

Chapter 27 Breathe, Mel, Breathe 126

Chapter 28 Lost in Translation 127

Chapter 29 Wings of an Angel 131

Chapter 30 You're Talking, But I Can't Hear You 141

Chapter 31 Viva La Revolution! 144

Chapter 32 Pi-Chi! 149

Chapter 33 The Real Deal 152

Chapter 34 The Elephant in the Room 155

Chapter 35 Grim Reaper 158

Chapter 36 Castro, Bush, and the Racy Tango 160

Chapter 37 Santo 165

Chapter 38 The Lost Boys of Cuba 172

Chapter 39 Statstruck 176

Chapter 40 Lockout 181

Chapter 41 To Mom, Love Princesa 187

Chapter 42 Graveside 189

Chapter 43 Friends and the Curious Case of the Speed Bump 194

Chapter 44 A Havana Wedding and the Canadian Chickens 196

Chapter 45 Tobacco, Mangoes, and the Horseback Cafecito 209

Chapter 46 Acceptance 212

Chapter 47 Nooks, Crannies, and Saying Adios 216

Chapter 48 Miami-Bound 218

Afterword 220

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