‘Making two countries proud’ UCLA’s Jaime Jáquez Jr. playing for both Mexican and American heritages

INDIANAPOLIS — Jaime Jáquez Sr. says there are no words to describe the emotions he feels when he sees his son's name on the back of a UCLA jersey, as the blue blood-turned-blue collar team has played its way into the men's Final Four as an upstart No. 11 seed. 

That's because the Jáquez name represents a lineage in Mexican-American heritage that started when his grandparents came to Oxnard, California from Sinaloa and Durango in Mexico. 

"I grew up rooting for UCLA just like the Lakers and Dodgers, so to have my son playing for the Bruins on this stage, it doesn't feel normal," an emotional Jáquez Sr. told USA TODAY Sports of his son, Jaime Jáquez Jr. "But when I see our family name on the back of the jersey, it makes me so proud. I wish there was an X-ray that could show the feelings I have in my heart. Because it represents (seizing) the opportunity and how far our family has come.

"When my grandparents came to the states and crossed the border, they came here to better their lives – to live the American dream." 

That American dream has always paid respect to its Mexican roots, emphasizing family ties to culture – a sense of pride Jáquez Sr. has passed down to his son, a 6-foot-6 guard who is UCLA's second-leading scorer as a sophomore with 12.1 points a game

“I’m trying to represent the Mexican culture the best that I can," Jáquez Jr. told USA TODAY Sports. “It means a lot because there aren’t a lot of Mexican or Latino basketball players as there are soccer or baseball players. I want to shed light and inspire kids to do the same as me.

“And obviously, there’s a lot of prejudice and racism in the world, and we’re fighting those battles as a country and as a people. So this is a way to recognize the love that’s there. My teammates, we’re all brothers no matter what shape, size, color or culture we are. Our Final Four run is a testament to what we can do when we come together.”

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UCLA Bruins guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) pose for a picture after the UCLA Bruins beat the Michigan Wolverines in the Elite Eight of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)

Jáquez Sr. says he used to spend summers in Guadalajara (southwest Mexico) and still has extended family there. Jáquez Jr.'s grandmother, Gloria, says cousins, aunts and uncles are all watching her grandson's NCAA Tournament games from Mexico.

"He's making two countries proud," she said. In California, Gloria always cooks Jaime's favorite dishes – quesadillas, rice and beans, and carne asada. 

“Food brings us all together," said Gloria Jáquez, who only spoke Spanish when she first came to the states. "When I cook, I tell everyone in the family (nearby) what time dinner is and they come over because we have a big backyard. Jaime will come over and ask me for his favorite dish. I’ll say, ‘OK, mi niño.’ My biggest thing I pray for is that he respects everybody and always puts family first. You can see how he does this (on the court) when he’s humble and shares the ball with his (teammates).”

That tight-knit family connection to Mexico is what prompted Jáquez Jr. to play briefly for the Mexican senior national team before his amateur career began, passing on offers to play for USA's junior national team coming out of Camarillo High School.

Jáquez Jr. has been one of the main catalysts on the Bruins' improbable NCAA Tournament run that's included upsets of the No. 1 seed (Michigan) and No. 2 seed (Alabama) in the East Regional.

It all started with a First Four win over Michigan State, which was when Jáquez Jr. scored 27 points to help spearhead UCLA to erase a 17-point deficit and defeat the Spartans in overtime. It was then his 17 points – including a dagger three-pointer in overtime – that helped put away Alabama in the Sweet 16. 

"We’ve been playing with a chip on our shoulder all season,” Jáquez Jr. said. “When everyone was counting us out, we just kept pushing and believing in each other, knowing when the going gets tough the tough gets going."

Basketball undoubtedly runs in the Jáquez family. Jaime Jr.'s parents met at Concordia University where Jaime Sr. played on the men's team and mother Angela, who is white and from Minnesota, played on the women's team. Grandfather Zeke Jáquez played basketball for Ventura College before he played baseball for Northern Arizona University. Jaime Jr. has bypassed his grandfather and parents, according to Zeke Jáquez himself.   

The Jáquez family from left: Marcos, Jaime Sr., Gabriela, Angela, and Jaime Jr. (Photo: Photo courtesy of the Jáquez)

Jáquez Jr. is trying to become just the fifth Mexican to ever play in the NBA. Jorge Gutiérrez, Horacio Llamas, Gustavo Ayón and Eduardo Nájera are the only four to play in the league. Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is of Mexican ancestry through his mother, but does not represent the country on national teams.

Jáquez Jr. isn't the first Bruin of Mexican descent to play in the Final Four, though. Lorenzo Mata is a former player on the Mexican senior team and a former UCLA center who made two Final Four runs with the Bruins in 2006 and 2007. Mata has mentored Jáquez Jr., who said Mata "gives me confidence to follow in his footsteps."

Jáquez Sr. said for his son's upbringing, Mexican culture was interwoven in his American household with grandmother Gloria's food, Catholic church and most of all – dancing to Spanish music. But the biggest cultural takeaway Jáquez Jr. has gotten from all of his family members: Hard work. Growing up, Jáquez Sr. never missed a day of work, and Jáquez Jr. plays with a grit and a drive coach Mick Cronin demands. 

Jáquez Jr. was originally recruited by Steve Alford, but Jáquez Sr. said it was "meant to be" and that the Jáquez family was even more impressed by the genuineness Cronin and his staff exude. 

"A lot of college basketball coaches are master salesmen," Jáquez Sr. said. "You can tell – without question – coach Cronin speaks from his heart."

Jaime Jaquez Jr. dives for a loose ball against Franz Wagner in the Elite Eight. (Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Jáquez Jr. embodies the type of players Cronin searches for on the recruiting trail – diving on loose balls, bruising his way to the rim into trees of defenders, taking a charge as instinctively as he shoots a jumper. Cronin recruited Jáquez Jr. when he was at Cincinnati but it wasn't until he got the UCLA job that he was able to coach the in-state star who regularly scored over 40 and 50 points in high school games. 

"Coach Cronin is completely honest and doesn't hold anything back," Jáquez Jr. said. "Guys in college, we need someone to tell us if we're doing wrong or doing right. He’ll let you know, but him being tough on us is honest and brings out the best in each and every one us." 

Jáquez Sr. overheard Hep Cronin – Mick Cronin's father who made the trip to Indy after over a year away due to COVID-19 – expressing frustration with his son when UCLA didn't foul at the end of the Sweet 16 game against Alabama – and it led to an overtime-forcing buzzer-beater by 'Bama's Alex Reese. 

"He was all like, 'Mick knows he needs to foul,' and that's like me telling my son, 'you need to shoot the ball.' It's brutally truthful, but it's so obvious it comes from love," Jáquez Sr. said.

"You can see the old-school, Midwest values. Well you know what, me and my family like those values, too." 

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson. 

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