Sitting in the courtyard of her graduate student housing on Weyburn Terrace, Erika Hirugami ’14, M.A. ’22 is telling the story of what led her to pursue multiple degrees in art history, art business, Chicana/o studies and Mexican studies, and to form two organizations expressly for creative immigrants — all while still a student. 

Dressed head to toe in silky black, the UCLA doctoral student, who also teaches courses that attract students from several departments, looks straight ahead as she talks. The thoughts and memories flow easily. After all, this is a story that drives her life every single day. When the breeze stirs her long, black hair, a few tiny strands of silver peek through. Her voice is soft. But it telegraphs fierce passion, determination. 

“Having been undocumented for a really long time inspires what I do,” she says. “Many of the academics I know in the UNDOC+ community [currently or formerly undocumented] are DACA and unafraid. I wasn’t DACA. I was terrified.”

Today, everything she does — everything she is likely to ever do — is for the benefit of visual artists who are on the UNDOC+ spectrum. 

It’s truly a mission born of her own past. Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Hirugami developed an early love for art and artisan communities. Coming to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant in 2000 at age 17, she lived the difficulties, frustrations and heartache of being reminded, again and again, that she didn’t belong. 

“When I got here, immigration officials said, ‘You are undocumented. You cannot leave this country.’ It felt like being in a really big prison. Then, in the month when I got admissions packages from the colleges I was interested in, a complete turnaround: The officials said, ‘We’re going to kick you out. We’re sending you back to Mexico, and you have to apply for your residency card over there.’”

Arelene Mejorado
Installation view of the exhibition Desterrando Archivos at Tiro Al Blanco Gallery in Guadalajara, México, curated by Hirugami.

They were trials that drove Hirugami to go to bat for undocumented individuals who are, in her words, “intelligent, brilliant and immensely talented,” but mostly unrecognized as creatives. She cites example after example of artists who volunteer in museums and have been making art for decades, yet can’t exhibit their work because they don’t have a Social Security number. Others work for pay in galleries but earn less than minimum wage. They can’t show their art, either. 

Hirugami is making it her life’s work to bring these people out of the shadows — to validate them and their creative contributions to the world. 

Her support has been invaluable to her fellow doctoral students. Ezequiel Amador, an art history major who emigrated from Mexico, remembers how nervous he was when he first arrived at UCLA in 2021 as a first-generation student of color. “[Hirugami] chatted with me about courses and program requirements and reminded me that, as my neighbor, she was only a few feet away,” he recalls. “That day I gained a mentor and a friend. I have been in awe of her ever since.”

Diana Cervantes, one of Hirugami’s UCLA students, felt the same sense of understanding. “As an undoc[umented] student, navigating higher ed has never been easy, and at a prestigious school like UCLA, many times I felt like I did not belong or that no one really understood my struggle. But Erika made me feel at home.”

A Life Lived in Art

Hirugami empathizes because she’s been there. Of Japanese and Mexican heritage, she was born in Central Mexico, where her grandfather was part of an artisan community. “Before I could walk, I was playing with art and hanging around artists,” she says. She felt at home there. But because she had family in the San Fernando Valley, she spent her childhood bouncing between two countries. She figures she had made almost two dozen trips to the U.S. by the time she was 17, mostly by herself, before she settled here.

Gustavo Soriano
Hirugami in front of Sin la S by José Villalobos; the artwork references a series of private conversations between the artist and his family regarding his desire to have children, visually contextualizing the pressure put on gay men to procreate “the right way,” which is inherently traditional and heteronormative.

Once here, she waited a few months to enroll in school. As a result, she aged out of U.S. high schools, but earned her GED. She couldn’t wait to go to college. Yet nothing had prepared her for how difficult it would be to do while undocumented. “You had to pay 10 times as much as regular students,” she recalls, “and you had to pay it out of pocket. No financial aid or any kind of assistance.” 

She enrolled in night classes at Los Angeles Valley College and worked full time during the day. She spent about seven years there, earning multiple associate degrees. 

Then immigration officials sent her back to Mexico.

“I had entered the U.S. illegally a couple of times when I was younger. The rule was you had to go back to Mexico, apply for what they called a pardon, and come back legally once you’re granted a visa,” she says. So she went back, she says, “knowing I might have to stay in Mexico for as long as 10 years.”

But two months later, things were looking up. She was granted permanent residency status and enrolled at UCLA, where she majored in art history and Chicana/o studies with a minor in Mexican studies. Following graduation, in 2014, a fellowship took her to the Drucker School of Management in Claremont, where the Sotheby’s Institute of Art offered an affiliate master’s program. She graduated with an M.A. in art business and also trained as an appraiser and auctioneer as part of the Sotheby’s program. 

To earn her Sotheby’s degree, she had to write a business plan. “I didn’t want to just make a plan,” she says. “I wanted to make a business.” So she founded CuratorLove, a social impact, for-profit company whose mission is to empower “immigrant, migrant and ‘undocreatives’ to thrive.” The firm curates exhibitions, produces publications and provides art services to the currently and previously undocumented, which Hirugami refers to often — and affectionately — as “my community.” 

“Just Paying Attention”

It’s when she talks about CuratorLove that the cultural warrior within her takes over. Hirugami’s dark eyes light up; there’s a lilt of hope in her voice, backed by steely resolve. Some would call what she does activism, but it’s a label she eschews. “I’m just showing up for my community,” she says softly. For her, it’s all about “appreciating the complexity and beauty of people.”  

Her work focuses on “asking individual artists what they want, and then using the tools of the art world to give that to them. I’m just paying attention to who they’re telling me they are, translating that into a visual vernacular so that everyone else can see what I see.” There’s a big need: She estimates that in Los Angeles County alone, 200,000 creatives are part of the UNDOC+ community. Yet, in recent years more attention has been paid to helping museums represent a diverse array of artists than to what individual artists actually need to break through and succeed.

Morgan Ashcom
Installation view of the exhibition Pertenecer/Encarnar: The Aesthetics of Undocumentedness at Ruffin Gallery at the University of Virginia, curated by Erika Hirugami. It includes works from artists such as Luis Alvaro Sahagun and Federico Cuatlacuatl (foreground), and (background, left to right) Francisco Donoso, David Cuatlacuatl, Jackie Amézquita and Guadalupe Maravilla.

“Erikas curatorial practice has been a breath of fresh air,” says Alvaro Sahagun, a shamanist from Mexico who, for more than a decade, has made complicated, mixed media art that promotes healing. “I have never encountered a curator that cares so much about my practice and about me as a human being. She respects my perspective and listens to my experiences with the intent to learn. She deeply understands our challenges, successes and ideas.”

Helman Alejandro Sosa Templos agrees. He’s a doctoral student from Mexico who makes playful art about immigrant trauma and finding joy in community. “Erika was always fervently pushing for all of us to get what we were owed,” he says. “She extended funding and networking opportunities. She moves us forward, together. There’s an uncompromising resolve she brings to every project.”

Creating a Network

After CuratorLove was established, an undocumented artist introduced Hirugami to Federico Cuatlacuatl, a University of Virginia professor who was formerly undocumented and had a vision similar to Hirugami’s. “We started having a lot of conversations about immigration policies and politics,” Hirugami remembers. “We wanted to highlight all the arts professionals who are dealing with immigration issues so we could build a network and they could get to know each other.” 

The two founded the UNDOC+Collective, which she describes as “an autonomous collective of individuals who are working independently.” They tackle the tough issues — dealing with trauma and thinking politically about immigration policy — in conversation with the group’s 70 members in what she terms “a welcoming, tender way.” One critical proviso: No one ever has to say whether they are currently undocumented. It’s important to Hirugami to provide safe spaces for “my community.”

Anna Carnes
Installation view of the exhibition Recordar/AnhelarThe Aesthetics of Undocumentedness at Dalton Gallery in the Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, curated by Hirugami. Works here include those from Isidro Pérez García (foreground) and (background, left to right) Karla Rosas, Yehimi Cambrón, Alejandro Sosa and David Cuatlacuatl.

She feels it’s also important for those spaces to exist inside institutions. So, in addition to lecturing at UCLA as part of her doctoral program in Chicana/o studies, she teaches art history at Santa Monica College and art business at Claremont’s Peter F. Drucker School of Management, with her aim being “to offer the UNDOC+ places to come together without fear, to heal in community.”

Art as Teacher

In the busy world of Erika Hirugami, there is no typical day. Between teaching and preparing to teach, planning exhibitions and writing curator’s statements, supervising the installation of art, writing and conducting research, staying present 24/7 for her community … the days and weeks blur. 

In the process, art continually teaches her about UNDOC+ artists. Although many of the artworks she represents are not directly related to how the artists migrated, when put in context — part of a curator’s task — they highlight the struggles behind the work. “Her curatorial skills and contributions not only provide a voice and visual power to those who are unable,” says one of her professors, Abel Valenzuela, the interim dean of social sciences in the UCLA College, “but also showcase the transformative nature of art in expressing human and personal agency, triumph, despair, beauty and hope for a better tomorrow.”

“Art speaks its own language,” says Hirugami. “It is tied to the creators’ ancestral images but also to the commonality of visual language. Most of us in the UNDOC+ community cannot communicate with each other, so art is a hopeful kind of axis to understand immigration policy and politics. It’s a magical process.”

One that makes her own purpose ever more clear. “Immigrants are the scapegoats for every problem this country has,” she says wearily. “Yet, in the middle of that pain and sorrow, a ton of individuals are doing these beautiful, creative, artistic things that we need to celebrate, as opposed to only talking about the horrors of being undocumented. That’s where I come in. 

“It’s intense,” she says, “this fight I picked.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.