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Mexican student embraces life in north woods

Park Rapids Area High School foreign exchange student Armando Padillo took up hockey this year. (Vance Carlson / Enterprise)

"This is the coldest I've ever been," Rotary foreign exchange student Armando Padillo, 18, said of the 100-degree temperature variance from home in Mexico to this week's frigid temperatures.

But he was grinning, not grimacing.

Arriving from Leon, a city of 1.7 million in the state of Guanajuato, Armando has embraced what life in northern Minnesota has to offer - including hockey and football, serving as a kicker for the Panther team.

At home, where he plays on the soccer team, he wanted to play hockey, but the schedule conflicted with the school day. "Nobody cares about it," the right-winger said. "Soccer is everywhere in Mexico."

He's found Minnesotans to be more affable than anticipated. "I was surprised. I was told before I left that American people are closed, unfriendly. But they have been so nice," he said, citing football tutelage from teammates. He admits to enjoying the ram factor in the rambunctious game of football.

"It's fun."

He's homesick, but "in a good way. I don't want to go."

Armando had to adjust to a new routine; school hours are from 3 to 9 p.m. at home. Middle school students attend the private Catholic school run by Jesuit priests from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. "Three to nine's better; I can sleep in."

His initial hosts were Carolyn and Maurice Spangler. Now he's taken up residence at the home of Paul and Patty Larson.

"Having him here has livened things up again," said Paul, whose daughter Megan is spending the school year in Australia via the foreign exchange program. Daughter Katie is in college, Nicole, 23, is in Washington, D.C.

Gunnar, 11, was the only kid in the house until Armando arrived.

Armando's class schedule includes physics, sculpture, American literature - where he was introduced to Salem witchcraft via "The Crucible" - and a conditioning class.

"I'm in the best shape of my life."

School, he said, is easier here, math, specifically. But he appreciates the science labs. Mexico teaches theory. Here it's hands on.

War is part of the curriculum, he noted. "We don't talk about wars in Mexico - because we lost them all."

Although Armando misses tacos and quesadillas - "food here is pretty bland" - he's ironically taken a liking to lefse - "a Norwegian tortilla. I ate 10 in a day."

The Mall of America proved daunting. "You can find everything but get lost" in the process.

He was impressed with the high school play, "better than Mexico."

He snowboarded at Buena Vista, but considers it a "bunny hill" having navigated the Colorado Rockies.

Armando found the U.S. Christmas celebration to be an abbreviated version of his own. "We party through the night," he said, the menu including marlin, tamales and pozole, a pork and hominy stew.

Armando expressed gratitude for the support and friendship he's found in Park Rapids.

His souvenirs: pucks and his football jersey.

Once the hockey season's over, the Larsons plan to head out on the ice for some broomball, fishing and snowmobiling - the phenomenon of stepping on water something his parents find "amazing."