TORONTO, ONTARIO - I could have gone through the entire day today without being aware that it was El Cinco de Mayo. None of the neighbourhood restaurants in Bloor West Village showed an outward sign of the holiday (a few bars apparently had specials inside), and nobody I interacted with here had any plans for celebrations. The Mexican restaurants I passed in my walks over the weekend weren't advertising anything special upcoming for today.
For someone who has spent time in California, this seemed very strange. There, El Cinco de Mayo gets even more attention than the actual Mexican Independence Day on 16-September, especially from those not of Mexican descent. Most of them have never heard of Mexican Independence Day, but tend to party every El Cinco de Mayo. How can this be?
El Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates the victory of the Mexicans over the French in the Battle of Puebla, in 1862. The triumph was quite unlikely, as the Mexicans were outnumbered, but the success was short-lived--the French would go on to rule Mexico for a few years after 1864, imposing the rule of Emperor Maximilian I. Outside of Puebla, the date is not especially prominent in Mexico--the bigger deal is Mexican Independence Day (which actually celebrates what amounts to a "Cry of Independence" in 1810 which eventually led to final independence from the Spanish in 1821).
So how did El Cinco de Mayo become the primary Mexican celebration in the United States? Historians seem to indicate that it dates right from the period of French rule in the 1860's--Mexicans in California used the date to celebrate a victory over the French as a protest against continued French rule in their homeland. By the time the French were gone in 1867, the holiday traditions had been established, and gradually grew to present day.
Here in Toronto, though, most Mexican immigrants are not from the United States nor Puebla, and thus the more important day, as in Mexico, seems to be 16-September. Then, one can find celebrations at local restaurants and community centers, just as on the national days of the other many categories of immigrants in this multi-ethnic city. If one wants to party on El Cinco de Mayo, a better bet is to find a "Tex Mex" or American chain restaurant--there will probably be celebrations there. I guess Canadians just don't need the same excuse to party that Americans do.