I'm Embracing the Mexican Tradition of Eating Carne Asada on Summer Sundays

When a person of Mexican descent invites you to a carne asada cookout, they consider you family. As a Mexican American, I have been to many carne asada get-togethers throughout my life. Not only is the food at these gatherings delicious, but I've also realized over the years that it's really about the strong sense of community it creates for Mexicans — particularly those of us living in the States.

I grew up and am still based in Santa Ana, a largely Mexican city in Orange County, CA. In fact, Santa Ana is so Mexican that when the late Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla was murdered on March 31, 1995, the cafeteria of my elementary school was transformed into a memorial where people paid their respects to the artist. I always say that walking through my neighborhood feels like you're in a town in Mexico — there's always Latin music playing, folks speaking Spanish, and smells of authentic Mexican food wafting in the air. And one of the foods you'll often smell and catch in the streets of Santa Ana is carne asada.

A carne asada cookout is named after the main meal at the gathering: carne asada is marinated and grilled skirt steak. I can still remember the trips I would take growing up to the carniceria (meat market) or grocery stores like Food 4 Less or Northgate to buy a pack of carne asada. All you need to get a carne asada gathering going is a generous amount of skirt steak and an outdoor grill to cook it on. Growing up, the carne asada cookouts I attended mostly included my close relatives, including my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. But we'd often extend the invite to close friends, too.

Mexican American restaurateur and author Bricia Lopez dives into the origins of carne asada in her 2023 book "Asada: The Art of Mexican-Style Grilling." According to her, the carne asada dish dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish Jesuit colonizers moved to northern Mexico and jump-started the cattle ranching industry. Beef became the popular dish thereafter in that region.

According to Lopez, the carne asada dish crossed the border into the US in the early 20th century. She cites the first carnicerias popping up in the US around 1930. From there, carne asada meals and gatherings became a staple in Arizona, California, Texas, and eventually in neighboring states. Wherever there are large communities of people of Mexican descent, there will most likely be carne asadas happening. I've gone to carne asadas in front yards, backyards, parks, and beaches. As long as there's a grill with carne asada on it and folks willing to get together, that's all you need to get the function going.

Some of my earliest, fondest memories with my family are at carne asada gatherings. I remember my grandma pulling her battery-powered portable radio out of her purse to play traditional música mexicana from acts like Vicente Fernández, Los Tigres del Norte, and Bronco. Other genres that are deeply beloved by Chicanos, or Californians with Mexican American heritage, are soul and funk music — the soundtrack of Chicano lowrider culture. My aunts and uncles often played hits by The Gap Band, War, Zapp, and Rick James. There was always soda for the kids, and the adults would indulge in Coronas or Modelos. If it was a carne asada for a kid's birthday, there would also be a piñata hanging around.

The carne asada my family brought to these cookouts was always marinated in salt, pepper, lime, garlic, and olive oil. There would also be corn or flour tortillas to make carne asada tacos or burritos with. The sides were always delegated to others. For instance, a friend might be asked to bring guacamole, while someone else would be responsible for making homemade red or green salsa. The spirit of community, where everyone brought something to contribute, was very much alive.

Carne asada get-togethers keep our Mexican culture alive and build community. One of the top Mexican American bands in the world right now, Grupo Frontera, was formed after the members bonded at carne asada get-togethers.

Now that I've gone from a child of carne asadas to an adult helping set them up with friends, one song I always have to play is "Summer Nights" by Chicano rapper Lil Rob. The vibes are right when I hear him sing, "I'm right next to the Pacific, to be specific," at a carne asada in the summertime, surrounded by people who mean the world to me. It's an experience that I'll savor over and over again this summer.

Lucas Villa is a Mexican American music journalist who covers pop and Latin music. Over 11 years, he has interviewed pop queens and Latin music superstars for places like PS, Allure, Elle, Rolling Stone, Billboard, MTV News, Paper, W Magazine, Vibe, and LGBTQ Nation.