Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was introduced to political activism at an early age by his father, a leader in the Puerto Rican community and the civil rights movement.
Espada received a B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin—Madison and a J.D. from Northeastern University . For many years, he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program.In 1982, Espada published his first book of political poems, The Immigrant Iceboy's Bolero, featuring photography by his father. This was followed by Trumpets from the Islands of their Eviction (1987) and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover's Hands.
Espada is the Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts.
In 2009, Espada performed in The People Speak a documentary feature film that uses dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries, and speeches of everyday Americans, based on historian Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States”.