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John Cena's #WeAreAmerica campaign video in Ybor City strikes chord with Tampa Bay (w/video)

By Sara DiNatale
Wrestling celebrity John Cena is seen during the filming of a national public service announcement on 7th Avenue in Ybor City on June 27. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

TAMPA — In his latest video gone viral, celebrity wrestler John Cena saunters through the streets of Ybor City, speaking directly to the camera.

He isn't promoting the WWE or pitching his latest flick.

Instead, Cena, who built his brand on the words "hustle, loyalty and respect," delivers a different sort of message. He urges Americans to love each other, regardless of sexuality, race or religion.

"To love America is to love all Americans," Cena says. "Because love has no labels."

The video, part of a larger campaign by the Ad Council aimed at celebrating diversity, has taken off. Since its Fourth of July debut on Facebook, it has amassed more than 8 million views.

Cena's message resonated with LGBT activist and former Ybor City business owner Carrie West — particularly after a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando left 49 dead last month.

"We needed it," West said. "Especially right now."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also was touched.

"What makes America great is not when we demonize and divide people based on race, creed, ethnicity, gender, the God you worship or who you love, but when we elevate each other and celebrate the fact that in our differences we are one nation," he said in a statement.

Cena, who has a home in Land O'Lakes, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The 39-year-old Massachusetts native first came onto the wrestling scene in 1999, but has become famous over the last decade. He has won about two dozen wrestling titles, released a rap album and appeared in movies alongside Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

He filmed the public service announcement on June 27, the same day the wrestling TV show WWE Raw filmed at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa. In addition to Facebook, the video appeared on YouTube.

Tyler Martinolich, of the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission, said the campaign's producers had narrowed the list of potential locations to St. Petersburg and Ybor City. The crew ultimately went with Ybor because of the district's distinct architecture and diverse community, he said.

In Ybor, American, Italian, Cuban and gay pride flags are usually flying, not just during public service announcement shoots. The historic district is also known for being home to various immigrant groups.

To many Tampa residents, the choice made sense.

"It speaks so highly of who we are," Visit Tampa Bay president Santiago Corrada said. "Almost like justification of what we always say: that we're just an accommodating place, a tolerating place."

The video starts with a familiar theme for Cena.

"Patriotism," he says. "There's a word thrown around a lot. It inspires passionate debate and is worn like a badge of honor, and for good reason, because it means love and devotion for one's country … Patriotism is love for a country, not just pride in it."

Cena asks the viewer to visualize the "average" American — and then shatters stereotypes.

"First off, the average American is a woman," Cena says. "Cool huh? Is that what you pictured?"

He goes on to tick off statistics: 54 million U.S. citizens are Latino, 40 million are senior citizens, 27 million are disabled. He adds that 3.5 million are Muslim — triple the number of people serving in the U.S. military.

Almost half the country belongs to minority groups, Cena says. That includes people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, Native American — "and proud of it."

"We know that labels don't devalue us," Cena says. "They help define us, keeping us dialed into our cultures and our beliefs in who we are as Americans."

He pauses.

"After all, what's more American than freedom to celebrate the things that make us, us?"

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.