Emma Sepulveda was born in Mendoza, Argentina, and moved with her family to Chile when she was seven. While in college, she began writing poetry and was an activist in support of Salvador Allende. In 1974, following Augusto Pinochet's 1973 military coup, she left Chile before graduating and came to the United States. Teaching herself English, she completed her BA and MA degrees at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 1987, she earned her Ph.D. in Latin American and Peninsular literature at the University of California, Davis and joined the faculty of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Nevada, Reno. She was the first Latina to become a full professor at UNR.
She is a political activist, poet, columnist, photographer, literary critic, and art entrepreneur. In 1993, she was awarded the Thornton Peace Prize by the University of Nevada, Reno for her work with Chilean women's groups. In 1994, she was appointed to the United States Hispanic Task Force, which advises the U. S. Senate. That year, she also became the first Latina to run for the Nevada state senate. In 1995, she founded the non-profit Latinos for Political Education and has chaired Nevada Hispanic Services. She became a columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1996. In 1997, she received the first Woman of the Year Award for Literature from the GEMS International Television Network. In 1998, the Nevada Women's Fund has recognized her as a Woman of Achievement. In 2000, she received the Silver Pen Award sponsored by the Friends of the University Library. In 2003, she participated as a panelist on C-SPAN's First Person Festival of Memoir in the Arts, which was co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council and the Blue Sky Arts Foundation. Also in 2003, she was the first Latina to be named a Foundation Professor by the University. In 2004, she founded the Latino Research Center at the University of Nevada, Reno and serves as its Director. In 2005, she won the Nevada Governor's Art Award. Also in 2005, she and Allyson Adams opened the Medio Mundo gallery for women's art in Reno. In 2007, she received the W. Clark Santini Cup. She is a member of the Nevada Latino Leadership Advisory Committee and received the University of Nevada, Reno's Dean's Award for Service in 2008. On April 27, 2008, actress Yolanda Vasquez read Sepulveda's poem, "September 11th 1973, Santiago Chile" as part of the "Words and Music" program on BBC Radio. In October 2009, Senator Harry Reid appointed Sepulveda to the National Museum of the American Latino Commission. In November 2009, she received the Mujer Award from the National Hispanic Leadership Institute in recognition of her national and international human rights activism and academic scholarship. Her research interests include contemporary Latin American and Spanish poetry and testimonial literature.