Hipocampos Children's Bookstore owner uses stories to uplift Rochester kids – Democrat & Chronicle

Chances are that if you live near the South Wedge neighborhood, or just happen to be a Rochesterian who loves literature and education, you know who Henry I. Padrón-Morales is. 
Don or tío Henry, as patrons of Hipocampo Children’s Bookstore affectionally call him, has become an institution in Rochester’s literary and education scene.  
For over 40 years, he worked for the Rochester City School District, first as a bilingual kindergarten teacher at School 12 for 26 years, then for two years as director of English Language Learning and finally 12 more years teaching kindergarten. He retired in 2016.
In 2019, he opened a children’s bookstore with his business partner, Pamela Bailie, and managed to survive the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic through a thorough business plan they spent two years developing by visiting bookstores across the U.S. and Canada, and anticipating for the worst.
More: How this small children’s bookstore manages to survive in tough times
He is loved by the community for his interactive “storytimes.” In these, he captures the attention of young children through song and music, mostly Caribbean and African tunes, while also reading books that teach lessons on inclusivity and empathy. 
But what most people in Rochester don’t know is that before he was a preschool teacher, the master of storytime and a literary entrepreneur, don Henry was — and continues to be — a champion of liberation for Puerto Rico.  
In 1962, when Padrón-Morales was a 10-year-old living in the South Bronx, his father received a letter from his grandmother that said the United States Navy set off a bomb “100 feet” from her home in Culebra, Puerto Rico.
From 1941 to 2003, the US Navy used land in Puerto Rico as testing grounds for explosives and other weapons. This primarily took place in the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, east of mainland Puerto Rico. 
While the Navy had purchased those areas, locals felt like they were left out of the talks, and for over 60 years protested the frequent bombings and impact on health and the environment. 
After nearly a lifetime of outcry and back and forth between island governors and United States leaders, President George W. Bush ordered the Navy to retreat in 2001. To this day, active bombs left behind on the beaches of these little islands can be found
For Padrón-Morales, the close call with his grandmother was the beginning of his political awakening. At that age, he couldn’t understand why “anyone would want to kill abuela.”  
“I asked my father a million and one questions, and I became frustrated in school because I wasn’t learning about what was bugging me,” Padrón-Morales said. He dove into literature because he wasn’t learning about Puerto Rico in elementary and middle school. “This was before bilingual education was a thing.”
His self-education led him to the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican rights activist group that was born in Chicago and took inspiration from student movements on the island and from the Black Panthers. The Young Lords had a prominent branch in the Bronx
“They had a storefront on Longwood Avenue, and I was drawn in by the smell of ink and the warmth of freshly printed flyers,” said Padrón-Morales, who distributed the group’s information in the community. 
His involvement with the Young Lords continued after he moved to Rochester when he was 15., Padrón-Morales and other young Puerto Ricans attempted to establish a branch in the city.
The storefront on North Clinton Avenue was a classroom, Padrón-Morales said, because people in the community had a thirst to learn more about what the Young Lords stood for. 
Don Henry’s passion for education began in the Rochester storefront for the Young Lords. There he reached the rank of cadre, which means he oversaw political education. 
After years passed and the branch members veered off into different careers, Padrón-Morales decided that the best way to reach the community was with early childhood education. 
“People got tired, political groups started dwindling and dying out, and I decided that if I was going to make a change, it was going to be through kids.”
Padrón-Morales studied elementary education with a minor in Spanish, and specialized in music interdisciplinary arts for children. He later obtained two master’s degrees, one in early childhood education, and another in education administration. 
But you don’t need to know about his educational background to understand his passion for children’s learning. It’s evident during his beloved storytimes. 
On an unseasonably warm October afternoon at Star Alley in the South Wedge, don Henry presented his storytime for a group of children with Ms. Gigi’s Growing Arts Inititative Group.
With bongos in hand, he welcomed the kids to sing along to the tune of Frère Jacques:  
“Buenos días, buenos días, ¿cómo estás? ¿cómo estás? Muy bien gracias, muy bien gracias, ¿y usted?, ¿y usted?,” he sang.. The children replied.
After saying hello to each other through song, he goes to teach the children about the rhythms of Africa and passes out percussion instruments like drums, egg maracas, cowbell and palitos
When the lesson on rhythm and using art to communicate was through, he read a book about a cactus that craves affection. Padrón-Morales stopped frequently to explain words, show art and teach the children about empathy.  
For over 45 minutes, don Henry manages to keep the children engaged. After his performance, he incentivizes them to write book reviews and send them to him so he can put them up on the wall of his store.  
As the protests over the killing of Daniel Prude were happening in Rochester in the summer of 2020, Padrón-Morales couldn’t help to recall to his time in the Young Lords. 
“Seeing the youth involved in Black Lives Matter, and how young people mobilized, brings me hope of better things to come,” Padrón-Morales said. 
He said he believes that community-based organizations are the path to enacting change. Apart from supporting local groups, he is heavily involved in community groups in Culebra, Puerto Rico, where his family is from, Padrón-Morales said.
After hurricanes Irma and María, the islands of Vieques and Culebra suffered severe damage that impacted health services and caused further isolation from Puerto Rico’s mainland because of unreliable maritime transportation. 
Padrón-Morales is currently working with Rochester organizations to create fundraising events that will help the “forgotten people” of Culebra. 
On any given afternoon, in the Hipocampo Children’s Books storefront, you will find a cheerful don Henry surrounded by his life’s biggest passions: children’s books that specialize in diversity and multiculturalism, scattered Caribbean instruments and the flags of Culebra and Puerto Rico’s Independence Party on the walls. 
From teaching himself about his homeland to educating others on politics, to children’s development, don Henry believes he was born to teach.  
“I chose education.”
Natalia Rodríguez Medina is a bilingual reporter covering the Puerto Rican and Latino population for the Democrat and Chronicle in partnership with Report for America. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliarodmed or email her at [email protected] You can support her work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.