Branson’s Trip? Nothing like My Father’s Journey from Ilocos to America

by Emil Guillermo

It was just a coincidence, but for me, the date helped put things in perspective.

On Sunday, July 11, 2021, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson went a little more than 50 miles into the sky and made a bit of history. The democratization of space? Oh, please. It’s just the commercialization of space. And the tickets start at around $200,000 a seat. The impact on humanity? Well, it fulfilled a few high-tech dreams for a certain number of elites.

But the American dream?

Consider that on the same date, July 11, but in 1928, my father arrived in San Francisco after a 30-day trip on a steamship from the Philippines. His voyage was farther (more than 7,000 miles vs. Branson’s 50); took longer (30 days vs 2 hours); and the whole trip in steerage was just stranger and even more weird. Branson didn’t even orbit. My dad actually got to a “promised land.”

Willie Guillermo was part of the first mass group of Filipinos to America (around 30,000 by 1930). Born under the U.S. flag in the Philippines, he was allowed to enter the mother country as a colonized American national.

He just didn’t look like everyone else here.

He got to San Francisco, and everyone was white. And spoke a different language. There was real animus toward him and the other Filipinos. They couldn’t intermarry. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t vote.

And for being friendly with the native white women, some Filipinos were even lynched and killed by jealous white males. The politics got so bad that in 1934, their status changed from nationals to aliens.

What did Branson encounter? He spent a few billion to get to the edge of space. If you held a globe of the world, it’s like traveling about an inch or two from the surface. That’s it. Enough to get a few minutes of weightlessness, a view to die for, and a platform to launch space tourism.

I don’t want to disrespect Sir Richard. But my dad Willie and the vast majority of immigrants from Asia have contributed more to American history than Branson’s P.R. stunt ever will.

Ask your parents or grandparents about their journey and see if their immigration success stories had greater collective impacts on American society than whatever Branson did this weekend.

But that’s why it was good to see that one of the newly minted civilian astronauts was Sirisha Bandla, 34, who immigrated with her family from India when her father, an academic, came to America. Bandla, a Purdue aeronautical engineer, an MBA, and the VP of Virgin’s government affairs and research operations, mentioned her mother and family whenever she could, thanking them profusely.

And then, after popping champagne corks like Super Bowl champs, Branson dove underneath Bandla to lift her up on his shoulders and carry her off the stage. (A Virgin H.R. moment?)

To Branson’s credit, he did announce a charity called “Space for Humanity” for a chance to win two seats aboard a Virgin Galactic flight.“Just imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity, have equal access to space, and they will in turn, I think, inspire us back here on Earth,” Branson said. “If you ever had a dream, now’s the time to make it come true.”

Sure, if you get lucky with Branson’s charity. Or have $200,000 to spare.

Still, it’s the good guy thing to say in a vanity moment to the extreme. All throughout, much was said about the so-called “overview effect,” the humbling shift in perspective when one gets a galactic glimpse of the earth.

But Branson is already considered a better-than-average “good guy.” How much better will he be post-flight? If space is transformative, shouldn’t we be sending the climate deniers? The vaccine deniers? The people who still think Trump was robbed of victory last November and will be re-installed as president at any moment? The people who want to restrict voting rights that will impact all people of color?

You know the type who deserves to be sent into space.

Essentially, it’s the people who threaten our democracy. That’s how space can be democratizing. Send people threatening our democracy to the edge of space to get a better grip on humanity. These are the Americans in need of a perspective change. People for whom a bungee jump from a tall canyon is not enough. Send them to the edge of the world for that “we are all one team” moment, with the hope they’ll return as kinder, more empathetic humans for the good of the country, if not the world.

You know we need it when 4,100 attended CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in Dallas on the same weekend, where Trump won a straw poll among attendees as their presidential choice for 2024.

Does Branson sell one-way tickets?

For the rest of us, if space is your thing, great. I know it’s hard to keep watching Star Trek re-runs and spin-offs.

But for real perspective, I still have the coincidence of the date. July 11. Seven-Eleven. My dad’s lucky day. His immigration in 1928 was like a trip to outer space and no less important in the practical scheme of things than anything Branson did on Sunday.

Let’s face it. Branson got his PR, but space is our national distraction, the escapists’ fantasy. Not the democratizing tool it’s thought to be.

Immigration, on the other hand – as we Filipinos know – now that’s the trip of a lifetime.

EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. A former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” during his career, he was a member of the Advertiser Editorial board and a columnist for the Star-Bulletin.  See his vlog at; Twitter @emilamok

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