TAMPA — Her son's voice was so beautiful, when he sang, she cried.
She wishes she could still hear it.
After 21-year-old Armando Millan Hernandez died last year in his sleep as a result of a complication of juvenile diabetes, those who cared about him wanted to do something to honor him.
A stage, they decided.
"Performance," said his mother, Irma Hernandez, "was where he lived life to the fullest."
The amphitheater would be in the shape of Hernandez's silhouette, and built in the oak grove of the West Tampa charter school that was Hernandez's second home. Children could dance and sing atop his image.
"A way to keep him here," said Madeline O'Dea, principal at the Trinity School for Children.
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No one can remember when Armando Hernandez decided he was meant for the theater. It seemed he always knew.
He would watch movies and perfect the characters' voices. His intricate Halloween costumes were Broadway-worthy. He taught himself Spanish, Portuguese and Italian just to get the diction right while singing traditional opera songs.
Not even diabetes, diagnosed at age 11, slowed him. During one performance, his insulin pump went missing. Between acts, Hernandez lay down behind the curtain. When his character was back on, Hernandez was up and belting out lines.
Onstage, there was no disease.
"His escape," Irma Hernandez said.
After completing eighth grade at the Trinity School, Armando enrolled in Blake High School's arts program. His mother pushed him to equally prioritize his academics — a backup to the cutthroat world of performing arts. But in Hernandez's mind, it didn't matter. He wouldn't need a backup.
He graduated and immediately immersed himself in the Tampa Bay arts scene. He performed with the Spanish Lyric Theatre, at the Carrollwood Playhouse, at Studio@620 and the Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg, and at Busch Gardens.
He had performed in more than 100 full-length plays at the time of his death, in July. His obituary lauded awards in singing, dancing and acting.
"He was what they call a triple threat," Irma Hernandez said.
His funeral, his mother said, was actually a happy event, with a slew of friends and family laughing and sharing good memories. More than 800 people came that day, spilling out onto the sidewalk of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa.
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Immediately, Hernandez's mother, aunt, school principal and friends started brainstorming for a memorial.
Choosing to build an amphitheater was easy.
When they decided on the design, that came together smoothly, too, with a Spanish and Canadian artist duo offering their "Open Mind Stage" conception for exclusive rights in the Tampa Bay area. The shape of Hernandez's face would frame the stage platform.
Now, the group is focusing on fundraising. Including in-kind gifts, the school has $60,000 of the $100,000 it will cost to complete the project. In the next few months, they'll reach out to alumni, put on dances and host bingo nights and fundraiser dinners in the hope of reaching their goal by July — the anniversary of Armando's death.
Irma Hernandez is sure he approves.
The other day she was in her car, a rendering of the stage on the passenger seat. She glanced down at it, and just then a beam of sunlight shone through the windshield. The light landed between her son's lips.
"A smile," Irma Hernandez said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.