Vasquez was born in the South Bronx, the son of two heroin addicts. His father was Puerto Rican and his mother was African-American. He began making his own films at the age of 12, and was awarded a filmmaking degree in 1983 from the City College of New York.
In 1989, he released The Bronx War, a film which he wrote, directed, and starred. In 1991, he released Hangin' with the Homeboys with New Line Cinema, the film which earned him critical acclaim. Having been arrested for running naked through an apartment building, he was later diagnosed as manic-depressive.
One of his stories was posthumously used as a segment in the 1997 film Riot.
- Kennedy, Dana (February 9, 1996). A Homeboy's Tragic Fall. Entertainment Weekly
- Salzberg, Charles (1991-05-19). "FILM; How the 'Homeboys' Got That Way". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-10-20.
- Harris, Mark (1991-06-07). "South Bronx Story". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2013-10-20.
- Associated Press (December 22, 1995). Joseph Vasquez, 33; Directed 'Homeboys'. New York Times