Biographical / Historical
Francisco Luis Espada Roig, later known as Frank Espada, was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico in December 1930. He and his family migrated to New York City in 1939. He attended public school and after high school, briefly attended City College of New York. In 1949, he joined the Air Force.
In 1952 he married his wife, Marilyn. They had three children, Lisa, Jason, and Martin. Espada began working for an electrical contractor to provide for his family, a job he would hold for ten years.
There followed a second stint in the Air Force, during the Korean War, and then, in 1954, Espada began attending the New York Institute of Photography on the GI Bill. In the late 50s and early 1960s, influenced by mentors such as important New York-based photographers Dave Heath and the legendary W. Eugene Smith, Espada became intent on pursuing what he called his "first love," documentary photography, but this dream had to be delayed.
From the early 60s on, he became heavily involved in the New York community and the Civil Rights Movement, organizing voter registration drives, rent strikes, and marches for civil rights. He photographed many subjects in New York throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the civil rights era. Because he was close to Puerto Rican activists and communities, he photographed these as well.
In the 1970s, he was a Ford Foundation Fellow working with the Drug Abuse Council. In 1979, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he was finally able to receive income from photography. This fellowship allowed him to pursue his "life-long dream of shooting a major documentary" on the Puerto Rican diaspora. He documented Puerto Rican communities and the Puerto Rican experience around the United States, including Hawaii and Guam.
In 1985, Espada moved to San Francisco and was given the opportunity to teach at the UC Berkeley Extension Program. He discovered that he loved to teach, which resulted in what he referred to as "eighteen of the best years of my life," and he was revered by his students.
In 1989 he joined forces with the Youth Environment Studies (YES), documenting the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2005 he retired from teaching and continued working on his book, encompassing his documentation of Puerto Rican communities. The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People, reproducing many of his photographs with his incisive, poignant text was published in 2007, twenty-eight years after the Diaspora project had begun.
Frank Espada was an activist for justice and an important documentary photographer in the "socially conscious" tradition, who wrote: 'The purpose of showing my work is to get young people thinking, to stimulate their minds and hearts, to make conditions known, and to attack injustices wherever they exist." In his later years, he turned to color photography and landscapes for personal artistic expression. He passed away in February of 2014 from a heart problem.