As a poet, essayist, translator, editor, and attorney, Martín Espada has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice, including fighting for Latino rights and reclaiming the historical record. Espada’s critically acclaimed collections of poetry celebrate—and lament—the immigrant and working class experience. Whether narrating the struggles of Puerto Ricans and Chicanos as they adjust to life in the United States, or chronicling the battles Central and South American Latinos have waged against their own repressive governments, Espada has put “otherness,” powerlessness, and poverty, into poetry that is at once moving and exquisitely imagistic. “Espada’s books have consistently contributed to … unglamorous histories of the struggle against injustice and misfortune,” noted David Charlton in the National Catholic Reporter. The author of over ten collections of poetry and several books of essays, multiple translations of Chicano and Latino authors, and as editor of influential anthologies like El Coro (1997) and Poetry Like Bread (2000), Espada “has provided a good, useful vehicle for disseminating [a] broader cultural awareness” praised Library Journal contributor Lawrence Olszewski.
Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a politically engaged Puerto Rican family. He earned a BA in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned his JD from Northeastern University. For many years Espada was a tenant lawyer and legal advocate; his first book of poetry, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero (1982), included photographs taken by his father, Frank Espada. Espada’s subsequent books, including Trumpets from the Island of Their Eviction (1987), Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (1990), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993), receive significant attention. Imagine the Angels of Bread (1996) won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Often concerned with socially, economically, and racially marginalized individuals, Espada’s early work is full of highly wrought, heart-wrenching narratives. Espada’s book, Rebellion Is the Circle of a Lover's Hands (1990) won the PEN/Revson Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Though defiantly and insistently political, Espada’s work is also known for its gentle humor. Leslie Ullman concluded in the Kenyon Review that Espada’s poems “tell their stories and flesh out their characters deftly, without shrillness or rhetoric, and vividly enough to invite the reader into a shared sense of loss.”
Some of Espada’s more recent collections of poetry include A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (2000), Alabanza: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2002 (2003), The Republic of Poetry (2006), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Meaning of the Shovel (2014), Sairin Paltosu (2016), and Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016). Espada won the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement with the publication of Alabanza; the book was also named an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. The Republic of Poetry, which deals with the political power and efficacy of poetry, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Taking cues from documentary poetics as well as formal argumentation and Espada’s ongoing fascination with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the volume interrogates the role of poetry in the public and private spheres: poems range from odes to poets like Yusef Komunyakaa and Robert Creeley, to treatments of the Chilean revolution, to anti-war polemics, to ironically sage instruction poems for young poets.
Espada has edited three important anthologies of Latino and Chicano poetry: El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry (1997), Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination (2000), and His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Víctor Jara (2012). The poets across these two anthologies hail from all areas of North and South America, bringing an important yet under-represented group of poets into English translation. In addition to his work as a translator and editor, Espada has also published books of essays and criticism, including Zapata’s Disciple (1998, 2016), The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive (2010), and The Necessary Poetics of Atheism (with Lauren Schmidt and Jeremy Schraffenberger) (2016). In the Progressive, poet Rafael Campo commended Espada's courage in Zapata’s Disciple, maintaining that he is one of only a few poets who “take[s] on the life-and-death issues of American society at large.” The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive considers the role of poetry in political movements. According to poet Barbara Jane Reyes, “To be a poet, Espada asserts throughout this series of essays, is to be an advocate, to advocate for those who have been silenced, and for places that are unspoken … Our work as poets can empower the silenced to speak.” Espada himself has never wavered in his commitment to poetry as a source of political and personal power. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Espada spoke to the impact of poetry on the lives of second-generation immigrants who discover the power of their own experiences through the form: “Poetry will help them to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think … poetry makes a practical contribution.”
Espada teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and at the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program University of Southern Maine. He has previously taught at Hampshire College, Drew University, Holy Cross College, Emerson College, Wheelock College, Tufts University, and Suffolk University Law School. His honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence, the Busboys and Poets Award, the International Latino Book Award, the Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, the National Hispanic Cultureal Center Literary Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the USA Simon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the PEN/Revson Foundation.