Born on August 7, 1957, in Brooklyn, New York, to a Puerto Rican father and a Jewish mother, Martín Espada grew up in Brooklyn. His father, Frank Espada, became active in the Civil Rights movement during the 1950’s. During the 1960’s, he took his son to protest meetings and rallies in an effort to educate him as to the political and social struggle that minorities must wage against prejudice, racism, and indifference. A leader in the Puerto Rican community of New York City, he later became a noted photographer. Through his father, the young Martín Espada learned about the need to fight against injustice.
Espada began writing poetry when he was fifteen. He has stated that he found writing to be even more important than sleeping. Some of the odd jobs that Espada held as a young man include a bindery worker, a groundskeeper for a minor-league baseball ballpark, a night desk clerk, and a bouncer in a bar. Each of these experiences allowed him to witness the difficulties that people of color encounter on a daily basis in the United States. The many diverse settings helped him to be what Espada calls a “spy.” He made the most of being a keen observer. The “mental notes” he made eventually were turned into poems. In 1981, Espada was graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a B.A. in history. He then went on to earn his law degree from Boston’s Northeastern University School of Law in 1985. After earning his law degree, Espada worked as a tenant lawyer near Boston in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was a supervisor for a legal-aid office, Su Clinica Legal, that served a clientele of primarily Spanish-speaking residents. In 1991, his wife, Katherine, gave birth to a son. Espada became an English professor on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1993, where he has taught courses on Latino poetry and creative writing. Taking inspiration from those who came before him, he also has continued to take public stands against injustice at every turn.