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A modded game controller in Cuba

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Cuba’s traveling game console repairman

Rust and sand are Cuba’s biggest console killers

A modded game controller in Cuba
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Antonio Pablo Martinez — Tony to his friends, and everyone is his friend — squats in the den of his small home, his knees pointing toward the corners of the room. He stares down at a half-assembled PlayStation 3, the bottom of his white Polo bunching between his legs, a look of focus on his typically jovial face.

His sandals creak as he leans forward, concentrating.

Around him lay the entrails of video game consoles. A pile of PlayStations, popped open like uneaten clams, leans lightly against an old chair in front of him. Xbox power supplies are strewn behind him, lost in a briar patch of cables. Near one of Martinez’ feet, a stack of unidentifiable circuit boards and a soldering iron. Near the other rests a game controller and more wires. The tiled floor, intricately patterned in green leaves and large framed red flowers, is littered with screwdrivers, wide, short-bristled, red-handled paint brushes and rags.

Rusted game console circuit boards rest in front of a home Santeria alter in Havana
Rusted game console circuit boards rest in front of a home Santeria alter in Havana
Brian Crecente/Polygon

The trail of circuit boards and electronics seems to naturally lead the eye to a corner of the room where the home’s alter for Santeria, a Caribbean religion, sits. Machete, dolls, old pottery bowls; they honor Eleggua the trickster, fierce Oya and Yemaya.

A father and his 11-year-old son patiently await the results of the attempted repair, watching an evening soccer game on a tiny television.

The two live nearby, but just as often Martinez receives visitors from all over Havana. He is, one customer tells me, one of the best game console repairmen and modders in a city of tinkerers and self-taught game console technicians. In a country where game consoles aren’t officially sold, the work of Martinez and others like him is what keep Cuba’s thriving game culture alive.

Martinez, now 45, began his career as a game console repairman decades ago, out of necessity, he says through a translator.

He was about 13 when a relative living in the United States sent him a Nintendo Entertainment System. He and his friends were so excited that the console was being sent from the United States that they threw a party the day it arrived.

“When we put the game in it didn’t work,” he says. “Can you imagine? I dreamed about it and now it doesn’t work?”

That’s when he caught the bug, as he says, for tinkering.

“I thought, ‘How can we fix it?,’” he says. “There was no way to know how to fix those. We were like Indians. Breaking here and fixing, trying to fix things. Eventually, fixing simple things, simple problems.”

Eventually, Martinez figured it out and got the system working.

“We spent the whole night playing Nintendo,” he says. “You had to put a coin in the place that you put the cartridge to get it to work.”

If you didn’t, he said, the cartridge wouldn’t stay in and the games wouldn’t play.

Martinez soon learned that the children of ambassadors and commercial pilots got the best games, and he would often trade with them or pay them so he could try out different titles.

A customer waits as Antonio Pablo Martinez repairs a console
A customer waits as Antonio Pablo Martinez repairs a console
Brian Crecente/Polygon

As Cuba went through its own Nintendo-fueled golden age of game consoles, people started using the systems to create home arcades, charging friends money to let them play in their homes. By the year 2000, though, the PlayStation arrived in the country and home arcades started to die off a bit as more people begin to smuggle the systems into the country. With a growing number of consoles in Cuba, a new market popped up: video game repair.

“People began paying to have their video game consoles repaired,” Martinez says.

After figuring out how to get his NES to work, Martinez continued to tinker, eventually asking a friend, someone who studied electronics, to teach him more about how the systems worked and how to fix them, he says.

Many people in Cuba have side jobs, or hustles as some call them, allowing them to make considerably more money than the national average income, which works out to about $25 a month. Martinez found a perfect side job repairing electronics.

Soon, the two friends were packing up their tools in a backpack and going to local embassies to fix televisions, stereo systems, anything that broke down. Then they started doing general electronic repairs throughout Havana, asking for people to pay half of the money for the parts up front before doing the repair and receiving full payment.

Eventually, the two got so popular that they couldn’t keep up with the work. That’s when Martinez decided to specialize and return to his first love: video game consoles.

But Martinez didn’t have nearly enough business repairing consoles in Havana when he started, he says. So he began traveling the nearby countryside, riding his bicycle, walking or hopping rides on passing trucks from town to town, offering to repair game consoles.

“It was a way without trouble to earn some money,” Martinez says. “Like an honorable way to do it: helping people and also doing a thing that I love.”

Martinez’ desktop repair station and computer
Martinez’ desktop repair station and computer
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Because he is good at what he does and was willing to travel, Martinez began to make a name for himself, earning enough fame that he was able to eventually stop traveling and turn his home into a business of sorts. Now, customers come to him.

The biggest problem Martinez sees in the consoles brought in for repair is rust; the high humidity of the island nation tends to rust out the guts of consoles. The circuit boards also tend to get clogged up with a fine dust.

“There is too much dust here,” a customer tells me, as we chat inside Martinez’ home. “It’s not the same kind of dust here as in other countries. The dust here sticks to the main board and starts to cause short circuits. It corrodes the components on the inside.”

Martinez spends a lot of his repair time cleaning circuit boards or even replacing them when need be. That’s why his home is so packed with broken open game consoles; he cannibalizes them to fix consoles brought in by customers.

“I wish we had a place where we could buy the things I need to repair video games,” Martinez says. “It’s not forbidden, but it’s not easy to find the parts.”

Martinez says he probably repairs 10 to 15 consoles a day, working Monday through Saturday basically all day. Now he can take Sundays off, but when he was a younger man he worked from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in one location and then would travel to old Havana to find more work until midnight.

Back then he was doing a lot of house calls and repairs of PlayStations, Nintendo consoles, Xboxes, everything. He also began to mod consoles so they could run pirated games saved onto the hard drive. Most games in Cuba are pirated, typically downloaded from a roving salesperson off a flash drive, or even sold in small stores for less than a dollar a game.

Martinez tells me to look around his home as he finishes up the repair of the PlayStation he has pinned to the floor, screws lying nearby.

On the other side of a small wall from the den is a small desk completely hidden by sheets of newspaper, tools, parts and circuit boards. A keyboard and mouse rest on the table near a glass chalice and idol of Saint Barbara. A dented, chipped red lamp is positioned over part of the table, illuminating wires, screws and other electronics bits and pieces. A massive desktop case rests by the edge of the desk. There’s a slot on top where Martinez can slide in a hard drive, allowing him to mod the software, upload games and add special menus for consoles.

Martinez calls me back over to show me his repair work. He plugs in the console and turns it on. A boot menu pops up for the PlayStation 2 that I’ve never seen before. The system works, he says.

Martinez smiles while repairing a console
Martinez smiles while repairing a console
Brian Crecente/Polygon

The 11-year-old is beaming. His father tells me that his son started playing games when he was four. The boy and his father pose for a photo with Martinez for me and Martinez seems to be the happiest in the picture.

After the two leave, I ask Martinez how much he charges.

“It depends on the people and the work I have to do,” he says. “If they cannot afford [those kinds] of repairs, for example, if it costs $50 [USD], I might charge him only $20 because I saw that he cannot afford it and they want it to get fixed.

When I ask him if he ever gets taken advantage of, he sort of shrugs and smiles.

“Well, yes,” he says. “But I know what it was like to be one of those people who couldn’t play because the console was broken.”

Cuba’s gaming revolution

You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.

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