When she was paroled from the Terminal Island federal prison south of L.A. in 1975 after serving 16 months on a cocaine rap, Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim felt like an uncaged bird. She was reunited with her jazz percussionist husband, Airto Moreira, and her daughters Niura, 16 (by a previous marriage), and Diana, 5. Her career was already on the wing: Flora has ranked No. 1 vocalist in the authoritative Down Beat jazz poll (over the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan) for four straight years. But the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was meanwhile preparing a jolting surprise of its own. In a bureaucratic procedure routinely brought against drug-offender aliens, the Feds ordered a deportation hearing for Purim next week that could finish her U.S. career.
“I’m going to fight this to the end,” says Flora, 36. Ironically, if she loses, Airto, 36, must choose between following his wife or continuing his own flourishing U.S. career—he’s just been named Down Beat’s premier percussionist for the seventh time. (He has a “green card” and thus is free to stay; Niura has a visitor’s visa and Diana is a U.S. citizen.) Their paladin is Manhattan attorney Leon Wildes, a 20-year veteran of immigration battles who successfully kept John Lennon from being returned to England in 1975 after a pot charge. Appeals could buy some time, but Airto stoutly says, “If Flora goes, I go. I was brought up that the family is first.” Referring back to her prison days, he adds, “It is difficult to be a father, mother and musician at the same time. I did that for two years, but I don’t want to do it again.”
Flora’s incarceration came after she was busted in a friend’s New York apartment in 1971 and convicted on one of four drug counts. Airto temporarily gave up performing to stay with the children near Flora’s prison. Diana was deeply troubled by her mother’s absence. “On visits she used to beg me to let her hide under the bed so that she could stay,” says Flora, who has needed a psychiatrist to help her through the postprison readjustment. Flora and Airto, who used to perform together, usually tour separately and alternately now because “every time we leave together, the girls think we are not coming back.”
Purim was born in Rio to a Brazilian mother and Rumanian immigrant father, but going back, she says, “would mean losing 11 years of our lives.” She and Airto came to the U.S. together in 1967, combining Brazilian rhythms with jazz influences before becoming founding members of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever Band. Now, according to Airto, “We are not from Brazil anymore. It would be like starting over from scratch.”
The family has two homes—one in L.A., the other in New York—while awaiting Flora’s fate. “The hardest thing is that they will not let me leave on my own,” she says. “The government pays for the airline ticket and you are taken to the airport in handcuffs. I don’t want to go through that. It is so humiliating.” Instead, Flora is determinedly continuing her career, including a new LP (Everyday, Everynight) and a recent emotion-packed concert at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York. “I’m frightened, but I’m not bitter,” she says. “I’m a fighter and just feel that if I can do something to show that America can be fair regardless, I’m going to help a lot of aliens. This thing has made us strong. I want to finish what I began.”