Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Alberto Ríos explores the relationship between authority and experience in “The Purpose of Altar Boys.” The narrator says that Tonio’s mother was an “authority” because “she was a widow.” As a woman, a mother, and a widow, Tonio’s mother had considerable experience. She was once a virgin, a girl no older than the altar boy. Perhaps an altar boy looked down the top of her white dress. She has fallen in love, been married, experienced sex, given birth, suffered the death of her husband, and raised Tonio. Her authority derives from her experience. She told Tonio the story about the parts of the eye to protect him from temptation, to preserve his childhood innocence.

The narrator claims that he also had experience. He “knew” about girls standing naked in their windows, although he does not say how he learned this. He believed that this experience gave him the right to punish those girls with his electric shock, as well as the “authority” to look down their dresses. The altar boy’s experience does not compare with the experience of Tonio’s mother. He also based his authority on his position as an altar boy, presuming to derive the right to judge and punish from being the helper of a priest. He considered himself superior to the other altar boys, claiming to be “the” altar boy who “knew,” and he thought of his electric shock as “Holy,” although he was not vested with the authority of a priest.

The ultimate...

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