"Colorful characters are kind of our specialty." - Carla Mowell
Carla Mowell grew up overseas, and yet she calls Wyoming home.
She grew up speaking Spanish at home and English in school.
Her upbringing made her sensitive to the challenges that Spanish-speaking children face in the U.S. education system.
She ultimately became an educator and her podcast, Wyoming: My 307, explores people, culture, wildlife, geology, and history.
• Why Carla Mowell decided to make Wyoming her home
• The experience of growing up between two cultures
• Why Carla became an educator
• Challenges for Spanish-speaking children in the U.S.
• How living in Wyoming changes your perspective on the state
• Why Carla started her podcast
• Carla's favorite recent podcast episode
Emy diGrappa: 00:08 Welcome to First But Last, brought to you by The Wyoming Humanities. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out, and thank you for listening.
Emy diGrappa: 00:35 Today, we're talking to Carla Mowell. She has been an educator for 30 years and now makes her home in Shell, Wyoming. Welcome, Carla.
Carla Mowell: 00:44 Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Emy diGrappa: 00:46 Well, before we get into your podcast... And tell me the name of your podcast again.
Carla Mowell: 00:51 It's called Wyoming: My 307.
Emy diGrappa: 00:54 And I- I love that you just picked up on the 307, and that's our only area code. Isn't that great? (laughs)
Carla Mowell: 01:01 I know, it is. We're... I- I think when I was looking at that I think there were like 13 states that have just one area code, and I do love that.
Emy diGrappa: 01:11 Well, what brought you to Wyoming and what... why did you decide to make Shell, Wyoming your home?
Carla Mowell: 01:18 Well, I've always felt most at home here. I grew up overseas. My dad was in the oil business and my mom was from Bolivia, so every summer Dad's company would give him the opportunity to take a vacation at home. So, that meant that one summer we would spend in South America visiting my- my grandmother in Bolivia or my aunt in Argentina, and then the next summer we would alternate by visiting my Grandma Rose, who lived in Greybull, Wyoming, where my dad grew up. So, I always felt like Wyoming was home, and in my family, as I mentioned, growing up overseas, we talked about home all the time. You know that phrase, "When we get home"? That always meant Wyoming. Even though we never lived here as a family, but we always spent important family time here in the summer together.
Emy diGrappa: 02:19 Well, and I- and I think that's completely a twist in your story because growing up overseas but yet you call Wyoming your home, and was it always Shell?
Carla Mowell: 02:31 I would say, like, it started being Shell when I was like maybe 12. My grandma lived in Greybull, so at first, we would come and we would stay with her. She had a little, tiny two-bedroom house, so Dad decided, "Well, let's buy a little cabin, you know, somewhere nearby," and bought this cabin that I'm living in now. Bought it sight unseen because he knew he wanted a cabin in Shell, and that's where we call home. That's where we- that's where we started coming every summer after that, and then at one point, my mom and I went in on buying a little bunkhouse to be put in the backyard, so that kind of expanded our little empire so that we could squeeze as many people as possible here during the summer.
Emy diGrappa: 03:19 What was it like to have a mother who was from Bolivia and an American father and growing up between two cultures?
Carla Mowell: 03:27 Well, when you're a kid, that's very normal. It's only as you grow older that you see other families are different and that some of the traditions or habits in your family are different than in other families. I mean, I think that happens with all kids, as you- as you get outta your house more and you realize other families have different traditions. But, for me, I- I knew I was the only one that was writing letters to my grandmother in Bolivia in Spanish and in English to my grandmother in the US. You know? I knew I was the only one in my little circle that was speaking Spanish at home and English in school, and even, you know, going with my mom to the parent-teacher conferences for my little brother because she- she wanted that back up. You know? A lotta the things they would talk about were kind of out of her- out of her normal range of what she would discuss. You know? How your kids are doing in school and stuff, the- the specifics of that.
Carla Mowell: 04:32 So, I remember translating for my mom when I was little, but I also remember having, like, my own personal secret language with my mom. (laughs) You know, when nobody else nearby speaks Spanish, that kinda becomes your secret code just between you.
Emy diGrappa: 04:50 And how did you explain or teach other kids the immense differences between all Spanish cultures? Did they always group you into one place or did you help them understand that every Spanish-speaking country is its own culture?
Carla Mowell: 05:10 Yeah, I... Honestly, I learned that more myself over time because my experience was in Bolivia when I was really little and then in Argentina. Like, I would say, upper-elementary age is when we started going to Argentina, and I definitely saw the differences between Bolivia and Argentina. But it wasn't until really as an adult where I started traveling more in other parts of South America where I did some work in El Salvador, I traveled to Venezuela a lot 'cause I was married to a Venezuelan, so that's when... When I first went to Venezuela is when I realized, "This is so different from Bolivia and so different from Argentina."
Carla Mowell: 05:52 And then living in Texas, of course, I went to Mexico quite a bit, and Mexico is a- a- a totally different history, and culture, and aesthetic, so I don't think I knew that as a kid. I- I- I don't think that's something that came to me until I was an adult and I experienced it for myself. But you're right, every single Latin American country that I've been to has been as different as, let's say, you know, the US and Germany.
Emy diGrappa: 06:26 That is so interesting. It's great to hear that you- you have a true perspective on it that you can share with others, and why did you decide to become an educator?
Carla Mowell: 06:37 Well, being bilingual really helped me get through the door in education in Texas. I always knew I wanted to do work, like, in social services or in the helping- in the helping fields, so education was the first opportunity that I was given just straight outta college. I- I got my bachelor's and my master's at the same university in Lafayette, Louisiana, and then out of college when I started looking for work, I went to my friend who lived in- in Texas. I went to visit her and just look for work there in Dallas and I realized really quickly that in Louisiana being a Spanish speaker wasn't a big benefit but in Texas, it was.
Carla Mowell: 07:27 So, I started working for Catholic Charities first. I worked there for about a year doing... I don't know if you remember in the late '80s was the... What was it called? The... It was, like, the amnesty program. So, in the '80s, there was an amnesty program and Catholic Charities was very involved in getting people ready for their amnesty hearings, so being a Spanish speaker was a huge help there, and then the school district recruited me.
Carla Mowell: 07:58 I don't have an education background, but they were looking for somebody who... for a new position. They... Okay, I don't have an education background, but they were looking for somebody who spoke Spanish, who was bilingual, and who could talk with parents and help them help their kids in school. So, it was perfect because even though I didn't have necessarily a lot of training in that, I had that personal experience of, you know, going with my mom and being the translator, and helping my little brother with his homework, so I knew what- what the kids and the families that we were targeting for this program, I knew what their life experience was like even though we grew up in very different circumstances.
Emy diGrappa: 08:47 And- and what do you think are the challenges for Spanish speaking children?
Carla Mowell: 08:51 I think it's very different depending on the community that you're in. So, in some communities, they have bilingual education. It's like they're- they're basically already honoring children where they're at and seeing it as a strength, not a liability. But I've seen other situations in which Spanish speaking kids are basically treated like damaged goods, where it's like they're seen as... for their deficit of English and not for what they already bring into the classroom. So, that's- that's really what appealed to me in the work that I did for 30 years was that we got to visit with families where they were at, and we actually got to support parents and kids in their home where they felt most safe and comfortable.
Carla Mowell: 09:47 I know for when I was a kid it was challenging to- to feel like in some ways I was being asked to, you know, help my mom with things that other kids wouldn't necessarily. You know, whether that was translating, or looking at a letter that came in the mail and- and telling her, you know, what it said and that kinda stuff. It kinda puts kids in a- in a situation of responsibility younger than otherwise.
Emy diGrappa: 10:18 And over your 30 years, did- did you see that change for kids? Did you see more openness to children being bilingual and having their first language as Spanish?
Carla Mowell: 10:31 I think it was just the environment that I lived in. You know, living in Texas, where there was a lot of bilingual education, it was definitely something that I didn't really see necessarily a big change over time 'cause it- it was like that the whole 30 years that I worked.
Emy diGrappa: 10:49 And that's really interesting too because that makes me think of the migrant population and the families that move across the country to pick crops. Did you work with those families?
Carla Mowell: 11:01 Yeah, my first group that- that I focused on were migrant families. That- that was the first pocket of funding that we were able to secure was how to help migrant families before they leave. 'Cause Dallas was their home base, so a lot of folks work with migrant families when they're in that traveling mode. But we worked with migrant families before they left Dallas to go work in the fields and then once they came back, so we were hoping to give parents enough material and support while they were in Dallas so that gap between, let's say, April and October... That's when they would leave Dallas and then come back in October, so that that gap would be less damaging to their kids.
Carla Mowell: 11:53 And in a lotta ways, I think about- about those kinds of families who- who need that support right now during the pandemic, and you have to just wonder, you know, with so much talk about kids working at their computers all day and how, you know, from an early childhood perspective that's not good for a kid to be sitting at a computer for eight hours of school all day. But what about the kids who don't have the laptop to sit at? How are they accessing their education?
Emy diGrappa: 12:27 Yes, that is an interesting and actually disturbing question when you think about it like that. Because we just take for granted that, of course, there's a computer at home. But that's not necessarily true.
Carla Mowell: 12:40 Right, or if there's three kids and one laptop-
Emy diGrappa: 12:43 Right. How does everybody learn? That's true. And- and there has been a lot of talk about that, about what the pandemic is doing to our- our young people. So, Carla, the other things that I find really interesting is that you lived in Texas, and now you made Wyoming your home, and you start a podcast, and it's Wyoming: My 307. And it explores people, culture, wildlife, geology, and history. And even though you haven't been here long, but you've been here all through your childhood and growing up years, and now you've made it your home where you're here 24/7, 365. How do- how does that change your perspective or how did you grow in a new perspective and appreciation of Wyoming?
Carla Mowell: 13:44 Oh, that's such a good question because I've reflected on that a lot myself. My experience of Wyoming before moving here was summers, for the most part. I mean, I had been here in winter a couple of times, but it was very brief, like for a family funeral and that kinda stuff. So, as you know, Wyoming also has winters. (laughs) I don't know if this is news to you, Emy. (laughing)
Emy diGrappa: 14:11 Just- just a little. (laughing)
Carla Mowell: 14:14 So, that was the number one question people asked me when I said I'm moving to Wyoming was, "Oh, my gosh. How are you going to handle the winters?" Well, I knew that I could handle it because I lived in Scotland when I was a kid and it's really cold, bitterly cold there. And I know that I don't like the heat, so I just figured, "Okay, I'm going to figure winter out," so that- that's been kind of the biggest adjustment, has been... and changing perspective has been how different it is in the winter. Not just the weather itself, which, you know, you have to deal with, but also how different the culture is in the winter versus in the summer.
Carla Mowell: 14:58 People are so busy here in the summer. A lot of people get folks visiting during the summer. A lot of the activities that you do during the summer, you know, of camping, and- and hiking, an- and getting outdoors, gardening is so huge here 'cause I think people are just savoring every moment of sunshine in summer that they get. And then things slow down in the winter. You know, there's all the projects that you save until winter because you- you know you're gonna have some time to work on stuff then. But there's also a certain comradery that comes out in the winter that I noticed a difference of.
Carla Mowell: 15:38 So, people look for excuses to get together. Of course, the pandemic has changed all that temporarily, but people find reasons to celebrate, and get together, and gather because there's an understanding, "Hey, we need to put some effort into staying in touch." Because otherwise, you could just hole yourself up and become a hermit for the whole- the whole winter, and that's not- that's not our nature as people. We're pack animals. (laughs)
Emy diGrappa: 16:06 We're pack animals. I like that. I like that you- you've learned that perspective between winter and summer in Wyoming and it's true. Every bit of sunshine and warmth is savored and waiting and going through nine months of winter just makes you love the summer even more.
Carla Mowell: 16:26 And honestly, I have enjoyed winters 'cause I'm an introvert, so it doesn't bother me to have a whole stack of projects to work on. But I have to admit... My secret is out now, of course, since I'm telling you, but I have to admit that I actually like winter.
Emy diGrappa: 16:48 (laughing) There is nothing wrong with that. (laughing)
Carla Mowell: 16:51 You know, and- and you have to kind of say it carefully 'cause people love to whinge about winter here. You know what I mean? (laughs) So, you have to join in the complaining even though you're kinda secretly loving it.
Emy diGrappa: 17:01 Well, and we- we do all love it actually because it is exactly what you say. It's- it's that downtime, but yet it's that regrouping because you know your summer is so busy and so packed. So, you're right, and- and just loving the seasons, I think, is what I love the most about Wyoming, is that we experience all four seasons.
Carla Mowell: 17:23 I agree.
Emy diGrappa: 17:25 And, Carla, so going back to your podcast, why and when did you start that?
Carla Mowell: 17:33 Well, I started listening to podcasts almost immediately when- when that started happening. Like, when- when This American Life became an online catalog, that's when I started listening to podcasts, and I- and I've always loved that medium because it allows you to... How- how do I even say this? Hold on. Let me think. I mean, I wanna say that I love the medium of podcasting because you don't have to sit and watch it. You can do other things. But a lot of podcasts are really riveting too, you know, where you're just sitting and listening to them, but I- I don't know. I just always loved the audio medium.
Carla Mowell: 18:19 When I was... (laughs) That reminds me when I was a kid, one of the summers I spent here in Wyoming, my parents had given me this little handheld cassette recorder and I recorded most of Alice In Wonderland with all the voices and the background noise that, you know, a 10-year-old could muster in a little cabin in Wyoming. Actually, it was a little trailer at that point. but I've always loved that medium of just audio. So, I started the podcast because once I started listening to podcasts, I didn't hear very many podcasts about Wyoming, and I really started searching them out 'cause I wanted to listen to a podcast that told the story of Wyoming but in a varied way so that it wasn't necessarily interviews. It was more... I- I love the This American Life format, so I- I like having, like, a theme that is explored through a bunch of different lenses, and that made me realize that, well, if I don't hear what I wanna hear than may- maybe I can make it myself.
Carla Mowell: 19:32 But living in Texas, not only was I busy, I was pretty removed from the experiences I wanted to have and things I wanted to reach out to here in Wyoming. So, basically, I had to wait until I moved to Wyoming to start the podcast. Originally, I thought about starting just a blog where you can have pictures and explanations. I knew I didn't wanna do YouTube just 'cause the equipment required and that's how I landed on podcast.
Emy diGrappa: 20:03 And- and then from there, in terms of how you decide to find your subjects or what- what intrigues you most about Wyoming and researching its history and culture?
Carla Mowell: 20:18 Well, I think what intrigues me most about Wyoming is that it has a very strong... People have, like, really specific perceptions of what Wyoming is, but there's so much more to it than that. So, people's perception of Wyoming has to do with, like, cowboys, and huge expansive views, ranching, and that's about it. Like, those are the stereotypes, let's just call them that, but we know that there's so much more. There's a lot of nuance here. There's a very specific culture. There's a history that i- is kind of a hidden history, so there's, like, the mainstream history that's talked about. You know, Buffalo Bill, and the explorers, and that kinda stuff, but there are so many more stories to be told, whether it's different cultures, different perspectives, histories of- of folks who kinda came and went.
Carla Mowell: 21:23 You know, I've been- I've been doing some research on the Chinese massacre that happened in Cheyenne in the late 1800s, I think, early 1900s, and that's something that you just don't even hear about. Like, you don't think of Chinese... an- an enclave of Chinese culture in Wyoming, but that existed. So, once I hear just one little tiny piece of that story, I just get very curious and start doing research, and sometimes there's not even that much information online. You know, it's- it's to the point where people are starting to drop off books on my porch like, "Hey, you need to check this book out because I think this is a story you'll wanna hear." So, I- I... It's kinda like a sweater unraveling. You know, you just start picking at it until you get more and more and more of that yarn out.
Emy diGrappa: 22:17 Well, and I think it's interesting that, you know, you've- you've taken the time and the energy to uncover some of that hidden history. Like you said, it's just not what you hear about every day. And then it also shows that you do live in a small town because people are dropping off books at your doorstep. (laughs)
Carla Mowell: 22:34 Yeah, for sure. (laughing)
Emy diGrappa: 22:38 It's like, "Okay. Only in Wyoming, we're still doing that." But I- I- I think one of the things I find that I really like is that you want Wyomingites and the rest of the world to really understand that there's just a big... It's not just a big state with a small population, but there's a lot of history here.
Carla Mowell: 23:05 Absolutely.
Emy diGrappa: 23:07 And there's so many colorful people that come from all over.
Carla Mowell: 23:11 Yeah. Yeah, colorful characters are kind of our specialty.
Emy diGrappa: 23:17 Oh, really?
Carla Mowell: 23:18 I mean, I think so, in Wyoming. Not just in Wyoming history, but, like, walk into any bar in Wyoming and you're gonna hear some colorful stories. You know?
Emy diGrappa: 23:28 What has been one of your favorite podcasts that you've recently done?
Carla Mowell: 23:34 Are you asking me about on- on my podcast?
Emy diGrappa: 23:37 Yeah.
Carla Mowell: 23:37 Okay.
Emy diGrappa: 23:37 On- on your podcast. What have you learned, and uncovered, and really... just really touched you?
Carla Mowell: 23:45 You know, I don't have that many episodes in the bag yet, so each one has been truly a labor of love for me. I would say the episode of Gay in Wyoming meant a lot to me only because it gave me an opportunity to interview my cousin who grew up here in Wyoming in Basin and lives now with his husband in Washington DC. And we hadn't really talked about, you know, our family stories and then his experiences of growing up gay in a really tiny town in Wyoming.
Carla Mowell: 24:22 So, that- that one was really special to me, but each one... I mean, the World War II episode, I just love because it's kind of done in the form of a road trip. Like, if you just take one topic, whether it's ranching, World War II, women in Wyoming, you know, really anything, or- or some of the geology topics, you know, dinosaurs, if you just take one topic and map out a grid of stories across Wyoming, I think that's my favorite kind of episode where you can kind of see how that story plays itself out across our state. And that's what the- the World War II episodes, which is World War II in Wyoming and then a- a bonus episode of POW camps in Wyoming, where I interviewed an author who wrote a book about the POW camp in Douglas. And then getting a chance to actually go in and see this camp that's now a museum and- and look at the artifacts, and- and just know that that's history right here in our backyard.
Emy diGrappa: 25:29 Well, and I'm looking forward to figuring out how we can work together because, you know, just like capturing your story and your voice right now for First But Last is really important to figure out how we work together to, you know, cross-pollinate and cross-promote and do all those things that- that one of the things that I've heard about podcast First But Last is that it's fun to listen to. It's in- it's interesting because they might've heard somebody's name who lives on the complete other side of the state, but they've never heard their story, and so it's really nice to hear other people's stories.
Carla Mowell: 26:16 Absolutely.
Emy diGrappa: 26:18 And so, I look forward to working with you on some projects, and it's been so great to talk to you, Carla. Thank you so much for your time.
Carla Mowell: 26:25 Oh, thank you so much for inviting me, and I'm an avid listener, so keep up the great work.
Emy diGrappa: 26:31 Oh, thank you.
Emy diGrappa: 26:36 Thank you for listening to First But Last, brought to you by The Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwy.org, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.
"There are situations in which Spanish-speaking kids are basically treated like damaged goods." - Carla Mowell