The 1854 outbreak of Cholera barely affected Rianxo, which the locals attributed to the protection of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most popular black Madonna in Galicia. This icon is an exact papier mâché copy of the one in Extremadura made in 1773.
Religious worship was joined by popular festivities and a sea procession was created. This saw the “Moreniña” embarked on a boat and accompanied by a hundred traditional crafts. This remains the main act of the festival today. More than one hundred boats of all types, some of which are open to the public, festooned with multicoloured flags and garlands take part. As well as being the main event of the year for the locals to meet up with family and friends at the end of summer, the event has grown internationally because of the spectacular display and the deep passions it arouses.
The icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, protector of the seafaring people of Rianxo, is taken from her shrine and carried in a procession to a specially decorated boat. When it reaches the Paseo da Ribeira the crowds view the Virgin as a Rianxo fishwife, walking barefoot on the sand, like those who introduced the xoubas (small sardines) into the biggest markets in Galicia. At this point, in unison they take up the traditional Galician song “A Rianxeira”: A virxe de Guadalupe/ cando vai pola ribeira,/ descalciña pola area/ parece unha rianxeira./ Ondiñas veñen/ ondiñas veñen e van/ non te embarques rianxeira/ que te vas a marear. (The Virgin of Guadalupe/ on the seashore/ barefoot/ in the sand/ looks like a rianxeira./ Waves come/ waves come and go/ stay on the shore rianxeira/ or you’ll fall seasick).
A copla that came about 50 years ago from rianxeiros in Buenos Aires longing for their homeland. Over the days of the festival it is usually sung at midnight. On the last day, at dawn, it is at the heart of the moving close to the festival, when the crowds at the verbena dance in Castelao square sing it again to the music of three or four orchestras and the lights of flares.